Well – that was a debate. No need for the strong coffee or smelling salts to keep the eyes open until the end of RTÉ’s Frontline programme with Pat Kenny. How did they do?
1. Higgins: he kept his head down for the most part, only raising it to go on about ‘a new Ireland’ and imagination and the arts and how he wouldn’t say anything about Denis O’Brien other than that he wouldn’t be on his list. At times he looked old (nothing wrong with that) but also a bit tired. Or maybe it was bored. Hands fidgety, eyes blinking a little more than usual. He did OK.
2. Dana: continued her loveable-little-girl-from-Derry bit, which is of course her strongest suit. And that she’d “stand with the people”, which was fair enough. The family row thing didn’t get raised so she did OK.
3. David Norris: he had a good night. At times he tried to force his way into the conversation and the braying note asserted itself and you – well, I – remembered what a pain in the bum he can be when he plays, is the toff. But like a team with nothing to lose, he performed in a relaxed and at times witty way. If he’d had outings like that every time he came on TV, the story would be different.
4. Mary Davis: something of the same relaxation was to be seen in her responses, although she got a wee bit snarled up in that question about Denis O’Brien being on her committee. I’m not totally clear on the Mary-Denis thing but I guess from last night that Denis is/was one of her backers.
5. Gay Mitchell: cheesh. And double-cheesh. Something in Gay’s clockwork has gone seriously wrong over the past few weeks, and there were bits of his inner machinery pinging all over the studio at one point. It’s real baffler – he’s actually a hard worker, I’m told, and some of the points he made last night and other nights were sound ones. But he just came across as a bit, um, hysterical. Null points, I’m afraid, Gay.
6. Martin McGuinness: his best debate of the campaign by a country mile. His most impressive feat was to take over Pat Kenny’s role – he was the one that asked the questions of Sean Gallagher. Pat Kenny at one point tried to convert some reference to a knock on the door into knocks on the door in the north, but maybe half-way he realized oops, the 5 o’clock knock thing was a loyalist gang speciality rather than a republican one, and pulled back. McGuinness’s two best bits were his ‘Just answer the question, Sean’ as poor old Gallagher got panicky and started talking about being given, of all things, an envelope; and the bit where he responded to the young woman who was a typical you-up-there-should-stay-up-there Southerner. If he’d paid her (in an envelope, of course) he couldn’t have asked for a better chance to bat the partitionist ball clean out of the studio, over Dublin and into every home in the country.
7. Sean Gallagher: near-total disaster. I say near because most of the time he did manage to sound calm, in a kind of – and I say this with no insult to our four-legged friends – bovine way. Which was good thinking, except that the occasion called for some return fire which he appeared not to have. There was an effort to make The Man With The Envelope into a fuel smuggler and mate of Gerry Adams, but Kenny smelt blood and whacked in with wanting to know why Gallagher had invited such a miscreant to a FF-er banquet.
Will McGuinness’s man-with-envelope story sink Sean G? It could well do, and I’d not be surprised if tired MD Higgins didn’t break into an elfin dance of joy, once the missus pulled the curtains last night. The bookies think Higgins will win and the bookies are rarely wrong. And McGuinness will now have evidence of that leadership quality he said he brought to his presidential bid. Who’s the person everyone’s talking about this morning? Gallagher, and he must wish to God they weren’t. Who’s the other person on everyone’s lips? McGuinness, the man with the awkward question that changed the whole shape of the presidential race. And I’ll bet there was the odd roar of approval north of the border when he reminded Dublin 4 that Derry, Antrim, Down, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh are as Irish as Cork, Dublin and any other county on the island
It should be an interesting couple of days ahead.