Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Politics of Debate

The former foreign minister, Micheál Martin, has won the contest to become the leader of Fianna Fáil, and immediately called for a series of leaders debates between himself, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, and Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore. He's asked for one at the start and at the end of the election campaign, as well as one in Irish. He is also calling for other head-to-head debates. So far Gilmore has accepted, while Kenny has sounded more cautious about Martin defining the structure of the debates.

With Fianna Fáil still well under 20% in the polls, Martin will naturally want to highlight his approach to both distance FF under him and under Cowen, and at the same time stick to the original message that Fianna Fáil is taking the tough but necessary decisions. Current Fianna Fáil strategy is to point out the differences between FG and Labour, since they will most likely form a coalition after the election. To some extent FG and Labour are happy enough with this: they tried a pact in the last election and failed, and their strategy this time is to run separate campaigns.

In some ways, this line of reasoning should be turned against FF: who would they form a coalition with? The Green Party are facing a likely wipeout - and in any case, FF will be a shadow of its former self in the next Dáil. Martin has spoken about not letting the election turn into a "coronation" of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, but the sense I get from the question-and-answer session after Martin's leadership press conference is that the focus is on damage limitation, and therefore not on government. This in itself would suggest that the election will be a coronation of sorts, and as long as nobody even thinks to ask the question: well, who would you form a coalition with?, it will remain that way.

The politics of the debates is revealing, though it highlights something that has long been common knowledge in Ireland. FG's leader, Enda Kenny, is not a good speaker in the Dáil, and isn't seen as a strong leader. Gilmore, however, is, and its his leadership that was credited with the now-waning climb in the polls by Labour - called the "Gilmore Gale". The enthusaism of Gilmore and Martin for debates is clearly rooted in their desire to capitalise on this. Labour have never held the position of Taoiseach before, and they will want to revive the call "Gilmore for Taoiseach" in a meaningful sense - I wouldn't be surprised if Gilmore tries to use Martin's charges of irreconcilable differences between Labour and FG against Kenny by suggesting that a FF-FG coalition is a possibility. Such an outcome would be political suicide for Kenny and FG, but the ploy may attract some votes to Labour as a more anti-FF party (though I doubt the effect would be great).

The debates may just inject more fluidity into the polls and excitement into the Irish election.

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