Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Step into my arena

A 'behind-the-scenes' look at last night's leaders' debate

The car was the same as all the others; dark in colour, of German origin; but this one was accompanied by four motorbikes. And - for those who doubted the occupant’s importance - a pair of squad cars bringing up the rear, just in case. It drew to a halt and out he came, emerging from the back-seat to dazzling white light and the sound of camera shutters clicking ten to the dozen. “Over here, over here,” people cried, phones hovering above their heads, determined to capture the moment, to relive it for eternity.

He waved deferentially and made his way to the thronged media. Microphones were shoved in his direction, the lights became more intense. The star attraction was finally here. “Do you not feel the cold?” one reporter asked, in reference to his attire; shirt and tie, suit jacket cast lazily over his shoulder as if out for a stroll on a mid-summer’s eve. “Not at all,” he scoffed, impervious to such trifling things as the weather. And with that he was gone, sauntering inside to greet more fans, to press more flesh, to leave more admirers in awe.

If last night’s leaders’ debate was judged on entrances alone then An Taoiseach would have won at a canter. The man who entered the Concert Hall at the University of Limerick was far removed from the downcast figure we have become accustomed to in recent months. Momentarily imbued with the spirit of Cary Grant, of James Dean, or any matinee idol from Hollywood’s golden age, our leader had suddenly, at this late stage in the game, acquired some sex appeal. I know, crazy isn’t it? But this was a new Enda, an Enda that women wanted to be with and men just wanted to be. A bad boy. The only thing that would have made his arrival badder were if he’d climbed down from one of the motorbikes himself, clad head to toe in leather, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. 

Was this flippant attitude a sign of things to come, a precursor for a night of foul-mouthed missives and lecherous jibes? Well, no, not really. Instead, at least in Enda’s case, we got exactly what we got last Friday night: Tiresome mantras, pomposity and the latest round of bickering with partner-in-crime, Michéal Martin. An Taoiseach ended this chilliest of nights wearing even fewer clothes than he’d arrived in, having proved himself to be all mouth and very little trousers. Thankfully, in case of emergencies, his faithful lapdog, Joan Burton, had arrived resplendent in a long, warm-looking red coat which, one would presume, she would have happily surrendered at the mere hint of a request.

Whether jaded by Friday’s night’s exertions or simply jaded, full stop, all four returnees failed to inspire, their stock plumbing new depths with each passing parable. This was in direct contrast to the new kids on the block, all of whom had their moments. The man generally considered to be the winner (in as much as an argument between seven people can have a winner) was Stephen Donnelly, whose crisp and concise offerings were delivered without truculence, without any of the sniping or back-biting which accompanied each and every tussle between the big four. You sensed their fear, their confusion as they watched this man, this exquisitely bald man, deliver line after line of relatable information, even having the gall to back up his policies with, wait for it, facts and figures.

This new form of politics unnerved Burton the most, moving her to brand it “corporate speak”, an accusation deftly batted away by the in-form leader of the Social Democrats. Then there was Billy Bob Thornton, is that his name? That AAA, PVP bloke, you know the one? His entrance was rather less spectacular, appearing to have walked to the arena in the clothes he’d just woke up in. Confused journalists looked at one another, “is he one of them?” a voice asked, “I think he is,” replied another. But once on stage Richard Boyd Barrett showed why he belonged, on stage that is. Like a conductor of a massive orchestra he played the crowd like a harpsichord, or some other unwieldy instrument. His tactic? Simple: Start speaking in a low voice, build it up gradually, and then end your sentence by shouting at the top of your voice. It worked every time.

Lucinda Creighton was there too, I’m certain of it, but in body only. Cast on the outer regions of the half-circle the Renua leader barely featured, leaving viewers with nothing more than a vague memory of an argument with someone and a spirited speech about taxes, or houses, or crime, one of those important things. Better to be forgotten completely than to be Joan Burton though, her insane wibbling is now a real worry. The Labour leader has become the aggressive drunk of these debates, turned away from every bar, forced to confront strangers in the street, she needs someone to bundle her in the back of a taxi, take her home and put her to bed.  

Gerry was Gerry, he pooh-poohed Michéal’s repeated IRA jibes, turned the issue on its head and invented a “three amigos” phrase which he then repeated for the rest of the night like a child learning its first swear word. But the sad fact is that despite this lukewarm performance, and those which preceded it, Enda Kenny will, in all likelihood, remain at the helm of Irish government come the end of the month. The public will have spoken and will have gotten what they wanted. It brings to mind an ordinary looking bloke, with an ordinary job, and an ordinary car who just happens to have an incredibly attractive girlfriend. We see him there, the country’s fate in his hands, and we ask ourselves: “How did he manage that? How did this bland, thoroughly unremarkable man fool a nation not once, but twice?” For those still in search of an answer hang round the entrance at his next public appearance, it’s a sight to behold. 

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