GE2020: TV debate influence on voters is complicated; Sinn Féin benefit from controversy

GE2020: TV debate influence on voters is complicated; Sinn Féin benefit from controversy
(left to right) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. PA Photo. Niall Carson/PA Wire

OVER three weeks of televised debates, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald has dominated.

Not because she won, but because everything revolved around her.

Ever since Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy first faced off back in 1960, political anoraks have questioned whether TV debates matter.

Do they affect voter behaviour? Do they allow for a real exploration of competing ideas? Or are they just a sideshow that makes currency out of the most cynical aspects of horse-race politics?

The answer is complicated – they’re a little of everything – but there’s been one aspect that’s been clear this time out: a moment of controversy will far outweigh the effects of everything else.

And in this election, that controversy benefited Mary Lou McDonald.

Just a few days before An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin faced off in a head-to-head debate, an opinion poll put Sinn Féin within reach of Fine Gael.

The idea of a two-leader debate was based on the notion that only Mr Varadkar or Mr Martin could become Taoiseach, but this poll changed that narrative as, with momentum on its side, it looked like Sinn Féin was in a position to overtake at least one of the two big parties.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin nad, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar during a commercial break in the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin nad, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar during a commercial break in the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Virgin rejected appeals for Ms McDonald to be added and went ahead as planned, but the absence of the Sinn Féin leader cast a long shadow on air.

Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar both came out fairly even from Pat Kenny’s interrogation – TV debates are often about just surviving unscathed rather than having a big win – but a section of questioning on Sinn Féin that really stood out.

Sinn Féin was already crying foul at ‘the establishment’ for shutting Ms McDonald out, and here was the national station offering two other party leaders an opportunity to attack SF on air without any right of reply.

It gave weight to Sinn Féin’s argument, and momentum to its campaign.

The multi-leaders debates are an inherently messy affair, especially in the hands of poor moderators.

The first, hosted by Claire Byrne on RTÉ was largely unremarkable; about as good an investigation into the issues as you can get with so many people on stage.

The second, hosted by Ivan Yates and Matt Cooper was a shambles; a 90-minute shouting match that included not only the politicians but the moderators too.

With the leaders having got away from the crowded debates unscathed – or at least equally scarred – all eyes were on Prime Time this week.

Throughout the campaign, Fine Gael has been in freefall while Fianna Fáil has stagnated, watching voters abandon the status quo for the Green Party and Sinn Féin.

Fine Gael’s approach throughout the campaign has been clear and classic: It’s the economy, stupid.

Though Mr Varadkar knew he the campaign would be tough and voters would flirt with other parties, he was relying on last-minute jitters about the economy giving people cold feet and sending them back into the arms of a Government that returned the country to sustained growth.

Meanwhile, Mr Martin, flanked on the left by moderate parties of all hues, has been trying to prove that Fianna Fáil is a responsible party that can lead a socially just government.

Though he’s still well placed to lead government, numbers matter and he needs to maximise votes to take second seats in every constituency he can.

Both men needed a win to put momentum beyond them. But then came Mary Lou.

At the eleventh hour, RTÉ announced that, in light of the shifting sands of the campaign, Mary Lou McDonald would be invited to Prime Time’s debate between the potential Taoisigh.

And once the cameras started rolling, it was clear that this was all about her.

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire

In one sense, being kept off the debates was better for her. From outside, she could cry foul about establishment bias, but once she was allowed inside she had to face the heat from her fellow party leaders, David McCullagh and, in particular, Miriam O’Callaghan.

And it showed her weaknesses.

When asked a hard question, Ms McDonald tends to react like a Leaving Cert student, warping whatever pre-prepared essay she has to fit the topic, regardless of whether it answers the question or not.

That doesn’t fly with Ms O’Callaghan, who forced her to think on her feet and found her wanting on issues like the death of Paul Quinn and Sinn Féin’s criticism of the Special Criminal court.

Mr Varadkar came out OK but failed to create the big moment he needed to turn this campaign around in the final days as he hoped.

Mr Martin was equally adequate, with nothing so good or so bad that it would shift the needle either way.

For Ms McDonald, it was a bit of a letdown. She did well but her presence wasn’t as groundbreaking as people might have expected from Sinn Féin’s rhetoric about 'the establishment' being afraid of her.

On RTÉ’s post-debate panel, Dr Theresa Reidy of the UCC Department of Government summed up the debate well; Mary Lou McDonald won, not because she beat the others, but because the debate did nothing to change the momentum of the overall campaign, which clearly favours her.

In effect, the debate had no effect.

But that doesn’t mean the debates overall were not important.

They did set a narrative and a narrative that suited Sinn Féin.

For four years, the party has been repeating the line that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in government together and Sinn Féin is the only real alternative.

That’s the line Ms McDonald took on the debates she was on, but it was also the subject of the debate she wasn’t on.

By shutting her out of the first debate and waiting until the last minute to invite her to the last main debate of the campaign broadcast media sided itself with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and gave Sinn Féin the fight it wanted.

The debates helped make this election about Sinn Féin, and that looks like it will pay off for Ms McDonald this weekend.

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