Political commentators, by and large, are cowards, and when they’re not cowards they’re ignoramuses. If the outcome of a contest is uncertain, nine times out of ten they’ll sit on the fence and the tenth time they’ll call it wrong. So you’ll notice there have been very few people telling us who is going to come out smelling of roses after tonight’s five-leaders’ debate on RTÉ.
There is, though, a willingness to say who will do badly. Gerry Adams, the southern media have decided, is a hopeless debater who knows nothing about economics, so he’ll be made mincemeat of by the nimbler leaders like Micheal Martin of Fianna Fáil and Eamon Gilmore of the the Labour Party. They could be right. If you keep writing something long enough, like the room full of monkeys typing Shakespeare, you’re bound to be right eventually. There isn’t a single mainstream newspaper in the south, or even a single media commentator in the south, who highlights the merits as well as the weaknesses of Sinn Féin. Personally, I’ve found events rarely follows the picture people have in their head, so I wouldn’t be astonished if Gerry Adams does rather better than the pundits predict.
But does the Big Debate matter? The answer is probably yes. It won’t convert those who’ve their minds made up but there are a lot of people out there who oddly haven’t yet decided which party will get their nod. Tonight they’ll tune in and, depending on who they like the look of, the sound of, the user-friendliness of, they may well vote his way in just under two weeks’ time.
Daft, I know. Also dumb, foolish and dangerous. Debating ability has little relationship to political judgement, and looks are only that – looks. John Edwards was an effective debater and was smiling and handsome, and look what happened to him: extra-marital affair while wife suffering from terminal cancer, career explodes in mid-air, finito. I’m not sure how many of the five men in front of the cameras tonight have fathered a child outside marriage but we need to resist the temptation to judge by appearances. What looks good tonight may look a lot less wonderful twelve months down the line.