Judge: Colm Flynn
Winner: Micheal Martin
Scores: Martin 82 | Gilmore 73
This was a debate of two halves. The first half was surprisingly bruising and enjoyable as two of the best debaters in Irish politics went head to head. The second half in contrast seemed very disjointed as they raced to cover all 10 topics on the list having only got through 3 in the first half. I believe the fault for this lies with the format of the debate and the determination of the moderator, Vincent Browne, to check every box on his list. It needed to be 4 topics shorter or 40 minutes longer.
Micheal Martin (Fianna Fail) opened up with a speech talking about moving from politics as usual and the need for radical change. This was interesting coming from someone who was a minister in the government for the past 13 years. He appeared slightly nervous but got into his stride. Eamon Gilmore (Labour) spoke about a “lousy government”, a broken government and a vision of a people of equals. So from these opening statements you would think that we were listening to two leaders from the opposition rather than a government and opposition and this approach was to set the tone for the rest of the debate.
I dislike debates like this where the participants are sitting down and would have preferred to see them at podiums where there is nowhere to hide. Allowing for that Martin’s body language was fluid and aggressive. Gilmore looked shocked at times and kept his hands defensively clasped in front of him for much of the time as he seemed to wonder how he was the one being attacked.
Gilmore referred to Martin as “Minister” repeatedly even though he is no longer a minister. This was an attempt to cement the link between Martin and the unpopular outgoing government and perhaps a glimpse of the line of attack Gilmore was sent in with. But beyond that Gilmore rarely got a chance to go on the offensive.
After the opening statements they then turned to a wide range of topics. These topics were so different and disjointed that they could almost be considered individual stand alone debates. There was a lack of a theme (or team line for want of a better description) from either side that could be seen as tying their various overall proposals into a single vision. There were nuggets of it in Martin talking about moving away from “politics as usual” and Gilmore stating that “the Labour party is the party of work”. Had they developed these and linked it to each segment then we would have had a more coherent overall argument and vision from each side. Instead we got 10 different debates of varying standard. They were so different they are worth briefly addressing as almost stand alone debates:
- The Budget Deficit: Martin opened with a brief speech that was heavy on figures and facts. Gimore was more vague on specifics and this allowed Martin to go on the offensive accusing Gilmore of chopping and changing and wanting to increase taxes and cut spending. Gilmore tried to respond but Martin kept attacking. Clearly Martin was better prepped on the facts and figures. It was also interesting that straight away it was the popular opposition that was on the defensive in the face of attacks by the unpopular government. Martin looked determined and forceful while Gilmore looked shell shocked under the assault.
- IMF EU deal: Gilmore wanted the deal to be renegotiated on three areas. Martin responded by bringing the bailout down to paying for wages for teachers, police etc. He then rebutted the points made by Gilmore so straight away we were back to Martin on the offensive and Gilmore defending his policies. Every argument Gilmore made was immediately attacked by Martin and again he looked utterly surprised that he was the one on the back foot.
- Disowning the 50 billion bank debt: Martin spoke first and his aggressive style emerged straight away with him asking Brown to repeat the question and then starting his response with “No Vincent”. This little interaction was typical of an approach that made it seem like his response was off the cuff and not canned. In contrast Gilmore’s responses to questions generally sounded scripted and prepared in advance. After the opening statements Martin went straight on the offensive attacking Gilmore’s policies and defending government policies by bringing the issue back to the impact on ordinary people with “chaos on the streets” had the decision not been taken. Gilmore was also on the offensive but in contrast was speaking about the opinions of professors. This was a better performance by Gilmore who finally seemed to be getting into his stride but on balance again this round went to Martin. At this point we had an ad break and it seemed to suck the momentum out of what had been an enjoyable debate up to now.
- Job Creation: Gilmore spoke about labour being the party of work and outlined proposals to boost job creation. Martin opened by talking about meeting ordinary people worried about their children and outlined a number of areas where he would boost job creation. There was no real clash here and they broadly agreed on many policies.
- Health system: Martin opened by talking about targeting certain diseases and making the HSE more efficient. Gilmore spoke about overhauling the whole health system with universal health insurance. Martin immediately attacked this talking accusing Labour and Fine Gael of privatising healthcare and in response Gilmore attacked Martin’s record in government and in particular in health. Gilmore repeatedly referred to Martin as Minister so that no one would be in doubt that he was part of the government.. Martin looked rattled and under pressure for the first time in this segment. This was a clear clash of alternative policies and this was Gilmore’s best segment so far.
- Education: Specifically the “motion” was should the government continue to fund private schools. Gilmore opened this segment talking about bringing private schools back into the public system but it felt like he was waffling through a question he was not prepared for. Martin put the focus on his track record in special needs education and expansion of third level and resulting innovation. It sounded good but was not related to the motion on private schools. Gilmore responded by saying he agreed and would add that the issue of literacy problems at the bottom of the education system should be availed of. So the actual topic for discussion was largely ignored by both candidates. Brown saw that this segment was going nowhere and moved on.
- Ministerial pensions: Martin defended his severance pay as minister by outlining how he was actually out of pocked by remaining in politics while other ministers are retiring. He pointed out that Gilmore, and Enda Kenny, both benefitted from similar payments when they were voted out of office in the past and that seemed to take the wind out of any attack Gilmore was planning. Instead Gilmore advocated independent review of politicians pay and pensions. Brown never gave the debate a chance to develop.
- Parliamentary reform: Gilmore outlined changes to make the parliament work longer and produce more legislation. He also advocated abolishing the Senate. Martin proposed a single seat system backed up by a list system. He also proposed that Ministers should not be members of parliament and should be opened up to external experts. Brown yet again tried to move on without discussion but was stopped by Martin. Gilmore jumped at the chance to go on the attack on Martin’s policies and why he had not done anything after 13 years in government. Martin responded strongly about Gilmore’s lack of reform after 30 years in parliament and that his proposals were marginal at best. This seemed to surprise Gilmore who now ended up on the back foot defending his proposals and Labour’s record of reform.
- Public service reform: Martin supported the Croke Park agreement and the flexibility that gives. Gilmore spoke about bringing service back into public service and also supporting the Croke Park agreemend. Brown ended this before it could go beyond opening statements so there was no clash and the round was at best a draw if even that.
- Coalition partners: Martin produced a canned response about Fianna Fail’s focus in the next Dail being about implementing policies and how that would determine what they would do. Gilmore spoke about having the objective of Labour being the largest party for the first time in the history of the state. The only party he ruled out going into power with was Fianna Fail. Martin responded that the people were sick of this politics of power. Gilmore fought back accusing Martin of wanting to forget that Fianna Fail was in power for the last 13 years and did Martin know the damage done to ordinary people. This was the best clash of the second half and Gilmore finally seemed to be getting into his stride just as the debate was ending.
This debate could have been Hamlet without the prince with Enda Kenny fleeing to the other side of the country to avoid it. Certainly whatever concerns Enda Kenny had about Brown as moderator did not materialise as if anything Brown was bullied by the two candidates which actually made for a better debate in the first half. Kenny’s presence would only have detracted from this debate.
So on balance after reviewing this debate in both style and substance I have to say Martin is the clear winner. He was better on the facts and figures. He seemed to have a better understanding of the plight of ordinary people. And he was stylistically aggressive throughout.
I find something intrinsically disturbing about the fact that Enda Kenny, who sees himself as the next Taoiseach and leader of this country, absents himself from public debate. And even more disturbing that there is general agreement – which I also agree with! – that the debate was better for his absence. The prospect of our next Taoiseach being someone who is best kept hidden from public view is terrifying!