Varadkar's coalition admission lends credence to the "same arse" theory
I'm going to admit something embarrassing here. I love political debates.
Make no mistake: this means I'm a bad person. Anyone who treats politics as sport, in even the most minute way, is a disgrace. One moment spent indulging in the theatre and pageantry adjacent to politics is time that would be better spent somewhere else, helping people.
Political correspondents desperately wish that this was akin to a game of football, or a boxing match.
Virgin Media's head-to-head between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar - the first of this general election - was not that. This was a game of possession between the training cones. A sparring session between two lads who've been threatening to beat each other up down the pub, but somehow always seem to be held back by a mate at the last moment.
In the "build-up," as it were, Matt Cooper and/or Ivan Yates noted that the main aim of the debate was to "not concede a goal... To avoid any gaffes, like Dan Quayle." Dan Quayle. Would you be well?
Well, Ivan, I've watched American political debates. I know American political debates. American political debates are a hobby of mine. Ivan, this is no American political debate.
Within minutes, Leo Varadkar proved the point. While he said he'd rather go into coalition with Labour, independents or the Greens, he said, in a debate, the first debate, the opening minutes of that first debate, that head-to-head debate, with his supposed mortal enemy, that historic enemy, he said... He'd be ready to go into a coalition with Fianna Fáil.
Eight minutes in. You could almost see Pat Kenny put the whistle to his lips. Do we blow it all up? Can we all go home?
From that moment onwards, the contest was over. The pretence that these men have any problem with each other's policies, with each other's plans, with each other... Vanished in an instant. How can you really make the case against your opponent when you're immediately prepared to work with them?
This turning point will have fatally confirmed the worst fears of many angry online commenters who can't get enough of the "two cheeks of the same arse" truism about Ireland's two biggest parties.
The cameras stayed rolling for another hour and a half. People kept watching. Pat Kenny kept asking his questions. But as far as Ireland's future goes, we know what we need to know.
Kenny was playing a blinder, to be fair. He elicited a tacit acceptance that each man saw his opposite number as the second-choice for Taoiseach. Once the debate delved into the substantive issues of crime, healthcare, housing, it simply became an exercise is an accountancy. Two crotchety bookkeepers bitterly filling in a ledger of each other's crimes and misdemeanours over the years, all while trying to cross out their own.
Martin didn't explicitly confirm that he's prepared to go into coalition with old rivals, but why should he? He's leading in the polls, and he's also spent the last four years propping them up. We know that he does not see a Fine Gael government as a problem to be urgently solved, especially not when he gets to sign off on the budget.
Once we know that both parties prefer to prop one another up than any other alternative, there is no debate to be had, only an argument. That argument broke down along the lines over who cut funding to what resources, who had fewer healthcare crises, whose TDs embarrassed themselves less. No fundamental crack emerged between the two men. They only pointed at each other's mistakes, rather than actually problems of process and ideology.
Neither man gave any sense of grave consequence should his opposite number be elected.
Moments of personality emerged only by accident. There was Leo Varadkar's unfortunate speculating as to what would happen if he had a stroke (or god forbid, if Micheál Martin suffered one). Time slowed down when Pat Kenny asked Varadkar whether he'd ever done recreational drugs and the Taoiseach's eyes went wide as if he was coming up in the Trinity Ball dance tent.
The pol corrs - those frustrated sports writers - will get their Dunphy and Giles on in the coming days, discussing who outperformed and out-punched whom. There will be praise for Varadkar's line that Simon Coveney is the greatest politician to come out of Cork in a generation, there will be dissection of how Varadkar's assertion that he cares, but can't always find the right words.
But nobody will provide a better analysis than the man who had the best seat in the house. "You're both, kind of, in agreement here. The methodology is slightly different," Pat Kenny noted at one point.
It's hard to remember what he was referring to. It could have been anything.