Return to Irish politics menu

The General Election – the Leaders’ TV Debate

James Carr

15 February 2011

It was like car crash TV, only without the car crash.  What stood out was that John Gormley wore a blue tie while the rest wore red.  The object of the exercise for Enda Kenny and Gerry Adams was not to look out of their depth.  For Micheal Martin and Gormley it was for the audience to forget what they had been doing for the last fourteen and three years respectively. For Eamon Gilmore it was simply to do better.

It would be easy to be superficially smart about the great leaders’ debate on RTE on Monday night, easy because it was an exercise in superficiality.  This became apparent when one question asked who was going to suffer from the cuts.  Martin made a virtue out of policy by saying, unfortunately of course, everyone.  Gormley agreed with Adams and said those with more money should pay more.  A slip of the tongue since it only invited the thought why this hadn’t happened when he had the power to do it.  In general however they all agreed, more or less, that there would be pain but tried to hide what this would actually mean by diverting attention to the meagre measures each proposed to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

Only Gerry Adams disagreed.  There would be no cuts.  Well, not quite.  There would be cuts to the pensions and salaries of politicians although how this would cover the €100+ billion paid out because of the banks was never going to be explained.


There were no real differences over these banks beneath the rhetoric.  Fine Gael would bail them out, maybe after the stress tests and after they really proved they needed more money.  Labour would create another bank, a state one, which would be novel were the rest not state owned as well.  Gilmore wasn’t too strong on explaining how the proposal for nationalising the banks would have differed from the blanket guarantee.  After all, with the former you own the debts while with the latter you simply promise to pay them.

Gerry Adams thought we shouldn’t be helping the toxic banks but this appeared to mean that they should be restructured (which meant what precisely?) and then the banks would work for the common good.  Banks working for the people.  Gerry was accused earlier of being a magician by Martin but achieving this really would be magic.

It was clear that all the parties were united, give or take populist noises, that the banks had to be saved and the question of ‘torching the bondholders’ would always be a secondary question.  Reliance on the international capital markets was a given.  What this said about the position of the state or of the democratic rights of the people would not be explored.


Instead the party leaders all agreed that the political system had failed and this was the root cause of the crisis.  This therefore excluded any notion that it was the economic system that failed and that it was the capitalist character of the system that was the problem.  Talking about the failure of the political system and need for a real Republic sounded radical but the changes proposed were laughable.  Reducing the numbers of TD’s or abolishing the Seanad, as if too many cooks spoiled the broth, hardly does justice to the scale of the economic disaster.  The Fianna Fail proposal that non-political experts were needed to run the country was an admission that they were too stupid to do it themselves but for some reason no one picked up on this.  It was also an admission that ministerial TD’s were too busy looking after local complaints about potholes or whatever to notice that the banks had led the country over a cliff.

In general all the proposals to change the political system are in fact various calculations on the minimum redecoration required to save it


The debate was entirely at one with the whole election campaign: squabbling mixed with synthetic indignation, as much from the governing parties as from the opposition, and a seeming almost total disconnection of the campaign from the scale and nature of the crisis.

What the campaign has revealed is that the economic crisis has yet to produce an equivalent political crisis, something we already knew from the ability of the Fianna Fail/Green Government to inflict pain on the innocent majority while bailing out the guilty having presided over the disaster in the first place.

The explanation, in reality excuse, for this situation is that the people are biding their time to take revenge.  A seething population will gain their revenge by decimating Fianna Fail when they get into the polling booth.

There is little doubt that this is so. In the longer term the humiliation of the party that has dominated the state since shortly after its birth is hugely significant but once again it is not commensurate with the scale of the disaster.  Opinion polls currently indicate the possibility of a Fine Gael-only Government.  The seething anger of the people would then be expressed in a vote for those that will inflict even more pain with policies practically indistinguishable, as they always have been, from Fianna Fail.  This is not revenge.

From the point of view of the interests of the capitalist class and its system this plan B has the added advantage of the availability of a pristine Plan C, consisting of the Labour Party and Sinn Fein.  It would surely prove, even those most stubbornly connected to electoralism on the left, that a radical change of strategy and tactics is required.  Wouldn’t it?

For all that we can ridicule the ‘debate’ among those who will not radically change the system one can’t help yearning for such a debate on the left.  Try imagining that – a debate about political alternatives on the left?


Return to top of page