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Liz O’Donnell: Is it fair for RTE to bring all the bad news to the top of the Irish General Election agenda?

The former minister of state runs the rule over the leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and Labour after RTE's final debate of the Irish General Election (and has a few words about the 'unhelpful' coverage from Montrose)

by Liz O'Donnell | February 24, 2016

The most cringe-worthy part of the final RTE leader’s debate on Tuesday was the highly-maudlin and doomladen voice-over lead in to it. RTE coverage has generally been very unhelpful to the Government over the campaign. We had a two-hour special on “everything that is wrong” with the health service on Monday night followed by a strong focus on homelessness for the whole of news coverage on Tuesday, eclipsing all other matters at home or abroad. Not one positive person was interviewed throughout.

Is it fair for RTE to bring all the bad news to the top of the agenda, three days before a General Election?

“Who will you place your trust in, who should rise? The Riverdance-like voice croaked… After all the infamous warnings and fallen pledges”

It was a misplaced dramatisation of a critical political debate more appropriate to a Conor McGregor fight than a general election debate.

Once it got started, people got into their stride, thanks to Miriam O’Callaghan’s talent for a framing a straight question. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was calm in responding to questions, if a bit cowed on the “whinger” remark. The campaign has been tough; the man is fatigued after few weeks of media grilling.

Liz O'Donnell column 5

Gerry Adams and Micheal Martin, in contrast, were buoyant and energetic. Joan Burton, when she got a word in, was strong and competent on most topics demonstrating her experience and seniority. The only subject on which she floundered was the cronyism question and her breach of the regulations for State appointments. But all the leaders had skeletons in their respective cupboards on that score.

So the cronyism topic delivered a nil-all outcome, apart for the absent independents and small parties, who have no such record on cronyism (yet). Adams tried again to cast a generalised slur over the integrity and competence of the “three amigos”, with a suggestion of Sinn Fein’s moral superiority over establishment parties. It would make a cat laugh.

Joan’s’ “think twice” remark was good, cautioning people to ponder the implications of their vote. Her appeal to progressive voters was well made, particularly given the Labour Party’s pledge to have a referendum on the Eighth Amendment and their achievement in championing marriage equality. Importantly she managed to carve out a unique appeal for Labour distinct from Fine Gael. This decoupling from Fine Gael should have been done earlier in the campaign. She knows her social welfare and tax, and on those two areas she was commanding.

Micheál Martin was again confident as well as combative, particularly in fighting off the persistent attacks against Fianna Fail’s legacy. So, when it comes to winners, Joan Burton and Micheál Martin fared best. They succeeded in landing a few blows on Gerry Adams, but nothing like the memorable swipe Michael McDowell made in the 2007 Election relating to the Northern Bank and Adams’ holiday home.

The Taoiseach, while he flagged at times with a faraway look in his eye, was coherent and confident on overall policy if weak on detail. Adams lacks the gravitas needed and was predictably tackled on his murky paramilitary connections and poor grasp of figures on tax and health policy.

Overall, it was a tired version of earlier debates. The gap is closing between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Fianna Fail tails are up. But the finishing line is close. It was not a game changer. Joan may have saved a seat or two by her performance. But to predict an outcome is like looking into a bush.

Liz O’Donnell is a former Progressive Democrats politician and minister of state, who represented Dublin South as a TD from 1992 to 2007.




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