31st January 2020

No clear winner in the Yates and Cooper seven-way leaders’ debate

Last night, with just over a week to go until polling day, seven party leaders took part in the final live all-party debate of the campaign on Virgin Media TV.

Host Ivan Yates set the tone from minute one, labelling the seven leaders “charlatans and chancers”. He challenged them to explain their campaign promises and how the next Government would pay for them. Co-host Matt Cooper couldn’t get a word in.

As we wrote after the previous seven-way clash, the goal that politicians aspire to in these live television debates is not to win but to not lose. This was especially true following the relentless opening stanza from Yates.

The pace of questioning was manic, and all participants struggled to cut through with key speaking points. The leaders were under siege by the hosts, and any notion of getting the message across quickly fell by the wayside. The goal became survival, to get out of the debate alive.

An hour and a half of queries, accusations, interruptions, and partial answers later, it was all over. All seven leaders were still standing, some in better stead than others.

There was no clear winner in the debate and few (if any) standout moments. It remains to be seen how it will have influenced undecided voters.

What is clear, however, as we enter the final week of the campaign, is that there are two parallel races going on. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, and Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald are engaged in their own three-way war of attrition, unconcerned with the minor parties.

It was almost like two separate debates at times, with the three leaders dominating proceedings, and the smaller parties interjecting occasionally, never really bothering the main players.

If party strategists were targeting last night’s debate for a breakthrough moment, they will be disappointed. With just over one week left, the parties are running out of opportunities to sway crucial undecided voters.

Party leaders verdict

Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael)

Solid and unspectacular. Found himself in the unenviable position of defending landlords and banks, but he stuck closely to the core message of economic competence and trust. Still probably needs a killer blow to overturn Micheál Martin’s lead in the polls. He will have his opportunity next week in the final head-to-head debate.

Score: 6/10

Micheál Martin (Fianna Fáil)

Martin has struggled to impose himself on the multi-party TV debates so far, finding himself wedged between the Taoiseach, who he kept in power through confidence and supply, and Mary Lou McDonald, who styles Sinn Féin as the real opposition. Martin’s consistent attacks on Sinn Féin really land, and perhaps he would have had more success focusing on the failures of the government. Overall, a solid performance that will please Fianna Fáil.

Score: 7/10

Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin)

From a communications point of view, Mary Lou’s key messages and tone have been most consistent throughout the campaign. She rarely wavered under pressure last night and handled attacks from Leo and Micheál, as well as Matt and Ivan, with ease. Following a difficult early spell in her leadership, she seems to be hitting her stride at the perfect time.

Score: 9/10

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald before the debate.

Eamon Ryan (Green Party)

A relatively quiet night for the Green Party leader. Much like the Claire Byrne Live debate, he refused to get drawn into the mud-slinging match, and interjected with his key points, rather loosely, when the opportunity arose. Climate and environmental issues haven’t featured hugely in the campaign so far, and this debate won’t have put them on the agenda.

Score: 6/10

Brendan Howlin (Labour Party)

An effective night’s work for the leader of the Labour Party. Was effective in his contributions and looked comfortable under pressure from the hosts. Although there was no standout moment, the Labour strategists will be happy with Howlin’s performance.

Score: 8/10

Mick Barry (Solidarity–People Before Profit)

Where Richard Boyd Barrett succeeded in the Claire Byrne Live debate, Mick Barry didn’t quite hit the mark. With a more academic and indirect style to Boyd Barrett’s, Barry struggled to impose himself on the debate. Won’t be unhappy, as he delivered his key lines and was not caught out.

Score: 6/10

Catherine Murphy (Social Democrats)

The poorest performance of the night came from the co-leader of the Social Democrats. Sounded nervous under pressure, failed to assert herself, and went missing for large periods of time. As one of the most effective opposition voices in the Dáil, and an experienced campaigner, she will be disappointed.

Score: 4/10

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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