Bertie won debate but Kenny not knocked out
Bertie Ahern won the debate in the judgment of the majority of people who contacted RTE radio last night. The margin was about two to one, writes Vincent Browne.
Enda Kenny faltered on a number of key points – sometimes to the verge of embarrassment – notably, the costs of the Fine Gael proposals, the commitment on medical cards for under five-year-olds, and crime statistics. While these faltering showed his political inexperience, although he has been in the Dáil since 1975, they may not be fatal to his chances of doing well in the election next Thursday.
Bertie Ahern was at times impatient and almost angry, especially at being interrupted repeatedly by Enda Kenny. He was wrong-footed at the outset of the debate by a question from the moderator, Miriam O'Callaghan, about Tony Blair's recent comment that ten years as Prime Minister was enough for the country and for him. Bertie Ahern said he remained energetic and eager for the challenges of office but he seemed discommoded by the initial tough questioning.
In the early stages of the debate Enda Kenny seemed the more confident, while Bertie Ahern seemed jaded but as the debate progressed, Enda Kenny seemed shrill while Bertie Ahern seemed commanding.
Enda Kenny seemed to score repeatedly on the issue of the health services and Bertie Ahern seemed defensive but no knockout blow was inflicted. On the economy Bertie Ahern was by far the more assured.
It is doubtful that in the absence of a major blunder or concession by one of the contenders that the leaders' debate has any real impact on the election result. Certainly in 2002, when Michael Noonan, the then Fine Gael leader, seemed to score decisively over Bertie Ahern, the election debate had no impact on the election outcome which was a disaster for Michael Noonan.
The debate of Wednesday night (16 May) resulted in a debating victory for the PD leader, Michael McDowell but whether this was an advantage or disadvantage for him or the PDs, is not clear. Some PD candidates believe that every time Michael McDowell appears on television during the course of this campaign, whether he “wins” debates or no, results in further damage to the party, so disliked is he and his style by the electorate, including by many PD supporters.
In that debate Trevor Sergeant, in spite of the embarrassment of being caught having prompts written on the palm of one of his hands, succeeded in neutralising Michael McDowell's claims that the Greens in government would insist on increasing taxes. Pat Rabbitte was assisted by initial hostile questioning from the moderator, Mark Little, about the incongruity of a Labour Party campaigning on reduced personal taxation.
The weakest participant was Gerry Adams, who seemed out of his depth on economic issues but he succeeded in pressing the buttons of his target audience, notably on the issue of drugs.
While the opinion polls record a continuing fall in support for Fianna Fail and some parallel rise in support for Fine Gael, it remains the case that the likelihood is that the next government will be a Fianna Fail-Labour government, led by Bertie Ahern. Fine Gael simply will not be able to capture sufficient seats to regain office, even with both Labour and the Green Party.