28th January 2020

Who was the winner of the Claire Byrne Live seven-way leaders’ debate?

With the curtains closed on the first seven-way leaders’ debate, one of the major set-pieces of the GE2020 campaign is done and dusted.

Featuring Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald, Brendan Howlin, Eamon Ryan, Richard Boyd Barrett, and Roisin Shortall, last night’s two-hour clash on Claire Byrne Live was one of the final major opportunities for party leaders to set their stalls out—so who came out on top?

Contrary to popular belief, the goal for political leaders in large debates like this is not to win: it’s to not lose.

If your campaign is going well, solid and unspectacular is the way to go. If your campaign is flagging, you need to make an impact and get yourself noticed. Some parties succeeded more than others in this regard, but all leaders will be broadly happy with their performance.

The second thing to keep in mind is that the candidates are not trying to speak to you: they are speaking to their respective base and trying to expand it slightly. What seems like a poor answer to you may be music to the ears of a party supporter.

The debate covered a number of key areas, such as housing, crime, tax, and climate change, and provided some sharp exchanges at times, but it was generally more light than heat.

All seven leaders remained standing at the final bell, with no knockout blow delivered.

Party leaders verdict

Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael)

Varadkar has endured a torrid start to the campaign, and Fine Gael find themselves behind Fianna Fáil across a number of polls. Despite this, he will be broadly happy with how the debate went. He will be glad that the smaller parties spent as much time hammering Fianna Fáil as they did attacking him.

He had a slow start, but opened up as the debate continued. When challenged on tax cuts and accused of buying votes with the people’s own money, his response that people should be allowed to keep more of their own hard-earned income resonated with the audience and personalised the macroeconomic debate.

Score: 7/10

Micheál Martin (Fianna Fáil)

Fianna Fáil will be pleased with Micheál Martin’s debate performance. As the front runner in the election (according to the polls), the goal would have been to avoid a slip up, and he successfully managed that.

He started well, with a robust response to Mary Lou McDonald’s accusation of arrogance for ruling out a coalition government with Sinn Féin. He accused the Sinn Féin leader of having an entitlement to govern, and said no other political party had any obligation bring Sinn Féin into government. He faded a bit towards the end of the debate, but will be broadly pleased.

Score: 7/10

Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin)

In a way, Mary Lou McDonald was under the most pressure to perform well in last night’s debate. The last week has been dominated by Sinn Féin’s attempts to force their way into the final head-to-head election debate between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, and Mary Lou’s performance last night would have done her no harm in her case for inclusion.

She communicated clearly and effectively. She arguably had the line of the night, telling the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders that she would take no lectures on economic competence from the party that bankrupted the country and the party that is building the most expensive hospital in the world.

Score: 8/10

Before the sparks: the party leaders line up with Claire Byrne

Eamon Ryan (Green Party)

If Micheál Martin only had to avoid trouble in this debate, this was even more important for Eamon Ryan. According to current polls, his party are ten days away from their best ever election result, but have been under pressure from other parties.

He was quiet, not getting involved in the back and forth. When his big moment on climate change came, the framing of the question through an agricultural prism threw him off balance. He was strong on housing and drugs, and will be broadly happy with his performance.

Score: 7/10

Brendan Howlin (Labour Party)

A quiet enough performance from Brendan Howlin, who finds himself and his party in a tough position. The space he traditionally takes up—strong and sensible social democratic politics—was probably squeezed by Eamon Ryan on the sensible, consensus-building side, and Richard Boyd Barrett on the left.

With Labour struggling, Howlin needed a big performance,  but it didn’t materialise last night.

Score: 6/10

Richard Boyd Barrett (Solidarity–People Before Profit)

The Solidarity–People Before Profit representative was probably the stand-out performer of the debate, drawing applause from the audience on a number of occasions with sharp, robust points.

Boyd Barrett hit his mark attacking the status quo on housing, drugs, and taxation issues. His party faithful will be energised by his performance. Given Solidarity–People Before Profit’s struggles in the polls, the debate will be a welcome boost.

Score: 9/10

Róisín Shortall (Social Democrats)

It was a quiet and unspectacular performance by Róisín Shortall. Like Ryan, she didn’t get involved in the back and forth of the debate but got her speaking points across effectively when she did.

With the Social Democrats struggling to break through in this campaign, they may have been hoping for a standout moment in the debate, but will not be unhappy with Shortall’s night’s work.

Score: 6.5/10

About the author

Gavin works on 360’s public affairs team, helping businesses to build integrated communications and public affairs campaigns. His previous experience includes media relations, policy writing, crisis management, and stakeholder engagement.

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