2011 IRE Election, Ray D'Cruz, View by election

D’Cruz: Martin wins First Irish Leaders’ Debate

Judge: Ray D’Cruz

Winner: Micheal Martin

Scores: Martin 80 | Gilmore 78

Micheal Martin made more of less. Eamon Gilmore made less of more. On the substance of the debate, the economy, it was a narrow win to Mr Martin (Fianna Fail). His strong attack on Labour undermined only by a lack of vision and policy of his own. Mr Gilmore bettered Mr Martin on health and education. In the end, balancing these two conflicting advantages meant the debate was a close call. Given the relative importance of the economy to the electorate and to the debate I’ve given the debate to Michael Martin.

The debate was in three discernible parts: firstly, the economy, which occupied around 60% of the debate; secondly, health and education and finally parliamentary and public sector reform.

How then did Mr Martin win on the economy given that Fianna Fail has been in power for 14 years and presided over one of the greatest boom and bust cycles in modern times? In short: he attacked, he negated and his style suited the structure of the debate.

Mr Martin attacked, oddly enough appropriating the anger and frustration of an opposition leader railing against a bad government. He achieved this partly in style, controlling the conversation and using body language that reinforced the message (an exaggerated forward leaning posture and an occasional clenched fist). He also achieved this in strategy, by making Labour policies and approaches the substance of his arguments. Mr Martin was able to make Mr Gilmore look naive in relation to the negotiation of EU loans and irresponsible for not wanting to pay down debt more quickly. He also attacked Labour policy backflips. Negation was also a strategy with Mr Martin suggesting Mr Gilmore would have also implemented a bank guarantee in the same position and that he would not abandon the policy in government.

What Mr Martin needed was a clearer economic vision as the new leader of Fianna Fail, a vision that could separate him from his predecessors. Mr Martin did not spend nearly enough time outlining his own plans and this mitigated his advantage. Indeed Mr Martin’s strategy may have helped him win the debate, but the real winner to emerge from the lack of vision and substance may have been Fine Gael.

The structure of the debate also suited Mr Martin.  The 45-seconds allowed for responses and the constant interference of the moderator made it very difficult for speakers to develop coherent and persuasive arguments. It meant that issues such as the handling of the deficit – a very important issue where there was a real clash of ideas – was reduced to a tennis rally of assertions. Again, this helped the incumbent avoid serious discussion and analysis; it also suited his more aggressive and direct style. But this observation is more subjective. Some viewers may prefer Mr Gilmore’s calmness to Mr Martin’s aggression; it may reflect a calmness they wish to see in the Dail. If the next debate is a five-person debate, the staccato nature of the discussion may only get worse, so Mr Gilmore needs to be prepared.

Mr Gilmore did much better on education and health. His ideas were again the basis for the debate while Mr Martin’s lack of ideas and motherhood statements were noticeable. Sometimes statistics work well in debates, and Mr Gilmore’s damning literacy statistic (17% of 15 year olds have literacy problems) was one such example. It painted the education system poorly. If Mr Gilmore had contrasted this outcome with the profligacy of the boom he could have done even better. Similarly with health, Mr Gilmore’s universal health plan was a clear alternative whereas Mr Martin didn’t seem to have much to offer for the future.

On the final set of issues, public sector or parliamentary reform, neither speaker achieved any significant advantage despite both offering a radical set of parliamentary reforms. This was a good debate thanks to the speakers, and with no thanks to the format and moderator. The speakers engaged with each other, clashed often and revealed something about themselves to the viewers.

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