Minimal debating done in penultimate presidential debate

Siobhán Brett reports on Ireland's "first truly digital presidential debate", held this afternoon in Google's European HQ in Dublin.

Billed as “the most interactive presidential debate ever held in Ireland”, the penultimate presidential debate was held this afternoon by Newstalk, in partnership with Google. The debate, broadcast on both Newstalk and YouTube from Google’s Barrow Street premises, was chaired by Newstalk presenter Ivan Yates. A breakdown of the debate on a question-by-question basis is available on the Newstalk website.

This afternoon, Newstalk published the results of a post-debate poll conducted in association with ESRI Ireland, which Michael D Higgins topped, receiving 38% of the listener vote. Gallagher and McGuinness tied at 20%, and David Norris came third with 11%.

Questions submitted by the public in the run-up to the debate were put to the seven candidates, including questions about youth engagement, social inclusion, the Constitution, party political involvement in the election campaign, and the negativity which has been a feature of much of it.

There were also questions asked by video link, and the candidates interacted through a ‘hangout’ on Google+. Newstalk’s Jonathan Healy read out listener tweets and other snippets from online discussions at intervals during the debate.

Although connected and interacting with listeners online, on radio and on YouTube, interactivity among the candidates themselves was lacking and very little actual debating was done. The format adopted was a structured Q&A, which has become something of a hallmark of the presidential debates to-date.

Speaking afterwards, Yates said he was pleased with the outcome.

“We got the listeners’ and bloggers’ questions in, so from that point of view, it was a success. The format, with seven candidates, is arduous and time-consuming, and it’s very hard to have a focus on it,” he said.

“It was pretty much as expected – a few waspish comments to keep them going. I think they have their set piece answers ready and they just want to go on to the single transferable speech with regard to emigrants, or the economy, or jobs – they just want to get on to their comfort zone, they don’t really want to engage in areas of awkwardness. But it was good fun,” said Yates.

The young people of Ireland dominated the first portion of the debate. “Are young people not particularly cynical of you as the quango queen?” Yates asked Mary Davis. “I think for me, having worked in any organisation or any board that I have served on, I have brought my experience, my expertise, and I have been a great role model for many women who still find themselves outside organisations, businesses and boards,” responded Davis.

On the youth question, Gay Mitchell said that he believed by making the right decisions the country could be on the verge of a “massive recovery”. “The government cannot continue to spend between €13 billion and €20 billion more a year than it brings in,” said Mitchell. He asked the young people of Ireland to “face this storm”, a storm which he said they would come through. “If you elect me as president, you’re buying into a restoration of confidence,” he said. “You’re supporting somebody with more contacts in Europe than anybody else running for this election.”

Yates said that the people of Ireland were looking for charisma, and put it to Mitchell that, according to the polls, he wasn’t providing it. “Charisma doesn’t provide jobs,” Mitchell shot back. “If I become president, I will hit the boards running.”

Martin McGuinness said he hoped to be a “voice for the voiceless, for all those who feel betrayed by the selfishness and greed we have seen in recent years.” When it came to his connection with the youth of the country, McGuinness said that his taking only the average industrial wage if elected would “take six young people out of the dole queue”.

When it came to Dana, Yates made the suggestion that her brand of politics was typical of yesteryear conservatism and something that young people would find “anathema”. Dana replied by saying she was the first person to open through the councils the ability of an independent candidate to run for the presidency.

“The young people who are listening know that they now have a chance to take their place at this podium, that they can go forward, that it doesn’t belong to political leadership...they want fairness, they want respect, and they want to be heard,” she said.

Shortly after the interval, Alice Burke, an Irish journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, asked the candidates (via video link) to specifically outline how they felt the president could make a positive change for job creation in Ireland, to combat a situation that prompted her to leave the country to begin with.

“My life has been about enterprise,” said Gallagher, continuing what is by now a well-known refrain. “We need to use our diaspora to bring and sustain jobs here in Ireland,” he said.

“It’s very important that whoever is in the job recognises that every president reinvents the presidency,” said McGuinness, who spoke about attracting foreign direct investment from the US in his role as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. “But the point there, Martin, is that is in your job as an executive minister,” interrupted Yates, “we have a Minister for Jobs. How does the president do that?”

This was a real reversal of the debate up to this point, when it was the candidates who were opting to focus on the details of the role and powers of the president, often relying on the technicalities of the post to avoid parting honestly with their own opinions.

Gay Mitchell engaged well with the video link question. Later in the debate, the same candidate said that “character assassination” was going on in the realm of social media, and that he thinks "there should be some ethical rules about that". He also suggested that the presidential campaign should perhaps to be shortened in length.

According to Jonathan Healy, hundreds of people got in touch through a variety of media, and over 3,000 conversations had begun online during the course of the debate. On Twitter, the hashtags #newstalk and #aras11 were used, and Healy said that ‘Gallagher’ was the name cropping up most.

Healy connected with a Google+ ‘video hangout’ and Ian O’Flynn linked in from the Sheraton Hotel in Athlone, Co Westmeath, to say that he was disappointed by the calibre of answers from the candidates, and that he felt the president should be looking at how best to make a fair and more balanced recovery from the recession. Healy read out a couple of text messages to the same effect. Towards the end, Stephen O’Leary offered some analysis on the web involvement during the debate. He said that international interest was remarkable, but that the debate didn’t seem to trigger any shift in sentiment in online chatter.

Image top: infomatique.