Seven-way debate proves that we're dying to see our politicians at each other's throats 8 months ago

Seven-way debate proves that we're dying to see our politicians at each other's throats

There is a wonderful word in Irish: deargár. Found in the de Bhaldraithe dictionary of 1959, it means "a carnival of bloodshed."

For just a moment on Monday night, it seemed like those who had tuned into RTÉ's seven-way leader's expecting a little bit of a deargár would go away disappointed.

Moderator Claire Byrne's winding introduction saw her playing matchmaker between the seven leaders, listing off who was prepared to go into government with whom and who was playing hard to get. If, after hearing all of the possible permutations, you could repeat them back successfully, you'd have deserved a spot on the stage yourself.

Byrne did a great job of condensing the debate into digestible information, and made sure none of her interviewees wriggled away from anything, but she got it badly wrong when she said, early on, "We have a long time to discuss all of the issues tonight."

As it turns out, two hours was no length of time whatsoever.

Many crisis issues facing the Irish people went entirely unaddressed. Businesses crippled by insurance costs, childcare workers protesting their working conditions, the number of bodies on trolleys in hospitals across the country and the genuine existential threat of climate change — which was reduced to one brief conversation about whether or not to reduce the national herd.

Byrne's strategy of allowing the debate to dictate its own terms paid dividends in allowing each candidate to actually establish the stark contrast between them on the issues of housing, on corporation tax and on who has made the most mistakes in the past. It also allowed for a lot of time for the leaders to, from time to time, dig the heads off one another.

Last week, the Irish public was treated to a tame affair between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, but this was more combustible.

In front of a live studio audience at NUI Galway, Richard Boyd Barrett won two sets of rapturous applause. The PBP leader delivered one of the soundbites of the night when Byrne asked if anyone knew where all the builders needed to build social housing are. Feigning an "Oh, I don't know" air, Boyd Barrett said, "Eh, yeah, they're building hotels?"

Maybe his standout performance shouldn't come as such a surprise. Boyd Barrett, after all, leads a party with more TDs than the Greens and Soc Dems combined. By comparison, Róisín Shortall, who was stood centre stage, made almost no impression whatsoever.

Boyd Barrett slammed both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for selling off public land under NAMA. Put your hands together, folks. "The people who really robbed pensioners were the people who took the money out of the Pension Reserve Fund to bail out the banks," he said, to another lashing of claps.

Even on farming, the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown man was able to draw applause on a subject surely well outside of his wheelhouse. Asked about the national herd, Boyd Barrett said that "an ever-expanding herd only drives prices down," noting that prices would fall even further if Ireland goes through with plans to import beef through the Mercosur deal.

Still, Labour leader Brendan Howlin got between his ribs a bit, asking him, "Who passes your purity test?" when it comes to the absolute certainty of coalition after Saturday 8 February. Boyd Barrett doesn't have an answer for that one, let alone an answer that would please a crowd. No matter how strong a night he had, we shouldn't expect to see him in government any time soon.

That might be why Varadkar and Martin largely left him to it. They saved their interruptions for one another and for Mary Lou McDonald, who was packing plenty of heat herself.

"You'd never imagine listening to the two of them that one had crashed the economy and that the other was responsible for building the most expensive hospital in the world," Mary Lou said, making her case for Sinn Féin, without ruling out the possibility of talking to either man about power-sharing once the election is over.

These were the men she went on to call "Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee flexing their muscles at each other". She said this, but the truth is that for the only two parties to have ever ruled the country, they far from dominated Monday night's discussion.

Even the diplomatic Eamon Ryan, who said at the start of the night that he was prepared to work with anyone, was curt when asked if he believed anyone else on stage "got it" when it came to climate to change. He said no, and left it at that. At one point, he said "Damn right" it was time for the Greens and it seemed like he was a bit too excited to use the word 'damn'.

At the outset of the show, Byrne warned as plain fact that no one party will govern Ireland after 8 February without the help of at least one of the other leaders on stage.

But the common theme across the crowd's joy was that it all came at the expense of somebody else. Right now, sensible or not, it seems that the easiest way to make the public to put their hands together is for our politicians to ball their fists.

Between Martin attacking Sinn Féin's ard-chomhairle, RBB burying FG/FF on their legacy over the last two decades and Mary Lou hammering her closest rivals at every opportunity, nobody seems to be scared of the deargár right now.

We'll see if that fighting spirit remains come Sunday 9 February.