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Strange times when Leo gets the laughs

County View

County View
John Healy

And so there’s only a few days left now. At time of writing, the talk is all about the Leaders’ debate at NUIG, which took place on January 27. My late mother, in her 90s, used to watch such debates, not to learn anything about party policies, which she regarded as junk, but in the hope that there might be a good row. She would have been disappointed on either count.
The nearest we got was when Mary Lou almost became impaled on the spike of who actually runs the Sinn Féin show – the elected TDs, who apparently are required to sign up to take their instructions from a faceless group behind the scenes, or the party itself in Dáil Éireann. We never got to find out because, intentionally or not, Brendan Howlin – who was so near to the edge of the podium as to be in danger of being pushed off – resolved to get himself heard, and in so doing broke the flow of what promised to be an an interesting explanation from the Sinn Féin leader.
In any event, once she dragged her foot free of the quicksand and on to firm ground, there was no stopping Mary Lou. The Adams successor has the ability to project gravitas. She could recite the months of the year and make it sound like Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, and gravitas is what we got. And she was lucky, lucky to be drawn on the podium with the two arch-rivals on either side; lucky to be drawn as final speaker in the closing wind-up. Let’s hope she bought a Lotto ticket on the way home.
And then two long hours of debate with zero mention of the fiasco that is the health service – the one topic the entire country is talking about, the issue that arises on every doorstep, the one subject discussed in pubs, coffee shops and supermarket aisles. Did they forget? Are they all so comfortably protected with private health insurance? Was Claire Byrne told by her producers that health was to be a no-go area? Whatever it was, that yawning gap spoke volumes about how much the denizens of Leinster House are of touch with ordinary lives.
The Galway debate taught us little about current affairs, save what we already knew. Such as politicians’ ingrained resistance to answering a direct question without a lengthy preamble about what needs to be done and why things are so wrong. Or the ability of politicians – contrary to all laws of physiology – to talk without pausing to draw breath, without a break in the flow to allow an interjection by an interviewer, or the propensity to move the discussion on to something completely new when the going gets sticky.
It said a lot about the quality of audience enjoyment at the debate that it was left to Leo Varadkar to crack the only jokes of the evening. The Taoiseach is not the type you would expect to meet at a screening of Mrs Browne’s Boys, and yet Leo was able to lighten the mood when he opined, to the nodded agreement of the others, that ‘there are nutters in every party, including my own’.
Leader debates have the appearance of being good for democracy, but where is the logic of inviting participants who are never going to be part of government, whose career ambitions seem to stretch no further than warming an opposition seat in Dail Eireann, and whose policies, such as they are, will never make it on to a programme for government?