Saturday, February 5, 2011

Campaign Diary Days 3 and 4 - Debates

The last couple of days have been dominated by the issues surrounding the number and format of the Leaders' Debates. The research shows that about one third of the electorate only make up their minds during the election campaign and that the set piece debates form a key part of their end decision. Whether we like it or not, the debates are important.

Micheál Martin, on the day of his election as FF leader, came out with a suggested debate schedule that would have had the leaders on TV practically every evening of the campaign. For obvious reasons this proposal was quickly vetoed by the other parties and the media itself. The one element of his proposal that looks like it will be retained, and rightly so in my view, is the díospóireacht as Gaeilge to be held on TG4.

Despite statements saying he would debate anyone, anywhere at anytime, Enda Kenny has ruled out appearing on TV3's debate scheduled for next Tuesday where he would face tough questioning from Vincent Browne while sharing a podium with Martin and Gilmore. The squirming and spinning by FG in an effort to get out of this debate is pretty hilarious. About a week ago Browne announced that he was inviting all the leaders to a debate and that if Enda didn't show up he would proceed anyway with an empty chair for the FG leader. Alan Shatter, FG's rep on the show that evening, announced that it couldn't happen as it would be a breach of the fairness in broadcasting regulations. OF course this was like a red rag to a bull for Browne and he has pushed ahead with the debate.

Then on Friday Kenny categorically stated that he would not participate in the TV debate due to a statement made by Browne about 4 months ago relating to suicide. Within hours, Browne stated on his show that he would step aside as moderator of the debate if the FG leader would attend but the Taoiseach in waiting still refused to attend. Then yesterday afternoon Kenny re-affirmed his plan not to attend by saying the empty chair at the debate would represent all who have had to emigrate during the recession.

This stance by FG is farcical. If Kenny wants the top job in the country then he should be out front, without handlers and spin doctors, answering the hard questions. It is daft to suggest that Vincent Browne has a grudge against FG. Well actually it's not, but he has an equally large grudge against all political parties - that is what makes him such an effective interviewer. He is able to challenge both the left and the right equally strongly.

The suicide issue also needs to be examined. On the night in question, Browne said to his panel "Is there any truth in the rumour that that Enda has been sent into a darkened room with a bottle of whiskey and a revolver?" after another poll had shown Kenny's approval ratings to be extremely low. While this turn of phrase is somewhat common in talking about political careers coming to an end and equivalent to "Is Enda going to fall on his sword", it could be construed as reducing the issue of suicide to a joke. Browne apologized on his show the next day and wrote to Kenny apologizing for any offence. And that's where the story ended until the other day.

When Kenny brought up the suicide defence he opened a huge can of worms. Not only did he not object to the comments publicly at the time but he accepted Browne's apology. Secondly the BAI rejected a complaint about the show, noting that TV3 and Browne's response to the statement was sufficient. Finally, after Bertie's famous suicide gaff, Kenny proceeded to debate against him in the Dáil repeatedly without making any statement of offence.

The entire debate debacle has shown Kenny in a very bad light. If he is not brave enough to take on Martin and Gilmore while being prodded by Browne, what hope has he on the EU and World stage when elected Taoiseach? Running away and making inane excuses gets you nowhere. Grow a backbone!

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