Fresh debate was on the Button

An unconventional election debate held to a full house at The Button Factory in Dublin's Temple Bar, had the energy that voters are looking for in this general election. Organised by musician Candice Gordon, the event, called Re:Public2011, sought change in stuffy political leader debates and a campaign that would engage more people in politics.

Debates chaired by Vincent Browne and David McWilliams were relaxed but fair, at least to this reporter. More importantly, they gave the audience a chance to question the candidates on the issues important to them. Heavy debating was broken up with intervals of comedy and music provided by comic Joe Rooney and Jerry Fish and his Mudbug Club. People also got the opportunity to rant and rave between debates and get up on the "Soapbox". Christina Finn was there.

Vincent Browne chaired the first debate with Independent candidates, John Hyland for Dublin Central, Dylan Haskins for Dublin South East, Michael Loftus for Dublin North West, and independent Nick Crawford for Dun Laoghaire. The chairman sparked discussion with the proposal that the people should have had a direct say in the IMF/EU bailout deal. He said the "aspirational hope" that the EU will renegotiate the deal is not a possibility and that without it he didn't see much chance of economic revival.

Each candidate was given one minute to summarise what they stood for and why they should be elected. John Hyland drew some laughter from the crowd when he suggested that Ireland should have dual currency, one that circulated solely in Ireland and another for outside use. He also proposed nuclear energy be introduced in Ireland, which would create an industry of 100,000 jobs.

Michael Loftus proposed renegotiation of the IMF deal, as well as reform of both government and civil service. Dylan Haskins, whose youthful appearance on his election posters has garnered comment, called for "our generation" to be represented in the Dail. "These decisions are going to effect my generation." Nick Crawford said he was "fed up with all the spoof, spin and waffle". The movement towards independents in Ireland had come about because people have "lost faith" in the parties. He added that he didn't see any "passion" in the leaders' debates.

Dylan Haskins, who is a founder of the Exchange Dublin and on the board of the Project Arts Centre, said the best way to solve our problems is through the arts. When asked by an audience member what realistic difference independents could make, given that they have so little speaking time in the Dail, he commented that he believed the whip system in the Dail was not democracy. "If we all group together we could be heard...we know what the people want."

Moderator Vincent Browne asked the panel about the payback of the IMF/EU deal. This drew a strong response from John Hyland, who said "we could refuse to pay back this odious deal and look at the possibility of setting up our own currency."

"Instead of borrowing the money from the IMF which is basically out of thin air we would make our own money."

Nick Crawford retorted that the proposal was nonsense. "We need responsible people. We need to just go over there and tell them no, not like Enda who goes over to Merkel having coffee and a little dance, we need to go over and tell them strongly."

After continuous questioning from Vincent Browne about "what if they so no", Crawford replied: "They probably will say no, but we will say we will bring down the euro. The single currency has not worked. This debt belongs to the bondholders and bankers; what these parties are doing is going to send us into no-man's-land."

Hyland suggested that there should be a reduction in the number of TDs through a lottery system, a suggestion which both the audience and Vincent Browne found amusing. The Dublin Central candidate suggested that the full number of 166 deputies be elected, then 65 should be "got rid of" through a lottery system which determined what constituency one would serve. "What about musical chairs?" suggested Vincent Browne.

The second debate, chaired by satirist and musician Paddy Cullivan, included Liam Johnston (Fi˙s Nua), Malachy Steenson (Workers' Party) and Nicola Curry (People Before Profit) .

Steenson said that the Workers Party was a party that stood up for people's rights. It was totally opposed to the IMF deal. He also said he would have no problem simply telling Shell "to get out" [of Mayo and the Corrib gas field]. Nicola Curry said "we can't keep on the route of borrowing from the IMF; we [PBP] defend ordinary people on the ground". Liam Johnston added that we were all essentially in "economic slavery". Nicola Curry said she was in favour of "getting rid of the fat" in politics and said that all the main parties were just going to bring in "pretty much what was there before".

Liam Johnston said that a lot of the independents would have joined together so as to have more chance of being heard in government, but with the election being called so suddenly there was not enough time to band together on the ballot. "We appealed the decision about getting our joined up group on the ballot but we were denied."

The debate with Ivana Bacik (Lab), Paul Gogarty (Green), David McGuinness (FF), and Ruadhán Mac Aodháin (SF) was chaired by economist David McWilliams. Before the session began, McWilliams announced that Fine Gael's Lucinda Creighton had "pulled an Enda" and withdrawn from the event. Before McGuinness took to the stage, McWilliams asked the audience to give the Fianna Fáil candidate a chance.

McGuinness spoke about Fianna Fáil's proposals, adding that he was the youngest of the party's councillors at the age of 24. He said the efficiency of politics was "broken" and it was time to give young politicians a chance. "Why do Fianna Fáil candidates pretend they weren't in power for the past 15 years?" McWilliams wondered.

Ivana Bacik said the Labour party was calling for radical change, stressing "we have ruled out any sort of coalition with Fianna Fáil". She added: "A Fine Gael-led government is very worrying for people on the left." Bacik claimed, in response to a question, that Fianna Fáil was essentially about "power at all costs". McGuiness countered that his party stands for "a government that believes in good governance". "How can you say that?" said David McWilliams. Sinn Féin candidate Ruadhán Mac Aodháin weighed in: "This is typical claptrap. Fianna Fáil wrecked this economy and let developers run riot."

On the issue of health, Gogarty said that the Green Party believed in prevention rather than cure. The Greens wanted to "encourage healthy lifestyles and penalise people with bad lifestyles". "Hold on," said McWilliams, "you want to basically penalise, what? Fat people?" Gogarty shuffled and smirked. "We are really talking about smokers, and increasing cigarettes by €2 or so."

Regarding the unavoidable topic of the IMF/EU bailout, Bacik said the only option now was to "renegotiate the deal to get a longer period to repay, and also on the interest rate". Moderator McWilliams said that Article 24 of the Constitution states that anything that is of significant importance to the people of Ireland requires a referendum. "This deal should have been put to the people; there is an allowance for this."

Gogarty said it was "dangerous to turn politics into the X Factor with the prevailing mood of the week," but said he would support a referendum if it were called. Ruadhán Mac Aodháin said Sinn Féin was on record as supporting a referendum. When McGuinness was pushed on the matter, he said he would support it, but that Fianna Fáil had a four-year plan.

Re:Public2011’s aim was to bring politics away from the television studios and to the people. The debates intend to be free from sound bites and political spin, giving the public a chance to question their politicians, live. Read more about the initiative here.