This evening saw the latest in the seemingly endless set-piece ‘debates’ between the Presidential candidates. And it showed up the first significant flaw in the campaign of Michael D Higgins, who has, by and large, been alone in being given a free run in the media thus far.
Tonight’s debate was chaired by Matt Cooper and broadcast live on Today FM (you can catch up on it by listening back to The Last Word from today on here). The clamour for US-style debates in Irish and British electoral campaigns began a few years ago but its applicability to a seven-handed ‘debate’ is clearly questionable. Having now been on the Late Late Show, plus Vincent Browne’s programme (on TV3) the most manageable tactic that appears to be being adapted is to allow the candidates to simply take turns to answer a series of questions with little, if any, direct engagement between them. Barely a format for debate, it mainly functions as an opportunity for set-piece recitation and theatrics. Tomorrow, RTÉ’s PrimeTime seems likely to squeeze any remaining life out of this particular format.
In that last respect, even with over a fortnight to go the media, and public interest in it, may have peaked. Because of that, the search for relevance could well shift the focus onto the candidate’s positions on the more immediate political and economic problems facing the state. A rambling front page piece in the Sunday Independent suggested that the coalition partners now have a general agreement to support Labour’s Michael D Higgins as the official government candidate (at the obvious expense of Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell).
The extent to which Michael D has received the soft focus treatment includes literally having his stature enhanced by allowing him to stand on a box for that TV3 debate. Similarly, he attended around half of the live radio debate, then departed for another function (there is also a liveblog of the debate on The Journal). While all of the candidates would arguably claim their time would be better spent at more deserving events elsewhere, Higgins’ actions may well be spun as his trivialisation of the Presidential campaign, or, more damagingly, evidence of an emerging sense of entitlement (heightened by the Labour Party’s refusal to allow him to stand against McAleese back in 2004). As the public debate moves onto the more pressing current issues, Higgins may also be forced to defend the positions of the government which is supporting him.
The image of an ageing male politician, appearing to be rewarded with the Presidency as the anointed choice of the political mainstream would seemingly hark back to the age before Mary Robinson’s mould-breaking Presidency. There would be a deep irony in that, of which Higgins himself would be acutely aware: Labour have become Fianna Fáil.