The deputies charge but fail to spark

How did the Deputy Leaders' debate unfold on Monday night?

The deputies charge but fail to spark

The deputy leaders face off on TV3 Image: TV3

While the party leaders debated under the bright lights in Limerick, in the TV3 studios in Dublin a rumble loomed.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, Labour’s Alan Kelly, Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen and James Reilly beginning tonight’s secondary – but perhaps more intriguing – debate.

If the main event in Limerick was the choreographed duel of the leads, then there was every chance (we hoped) this could be the altogether grittier brawl between the backup dancers who’ve been throwing sideways glares across the floor for the last five years.

Going with a round table setup over the podium style, moderator Mick Clifford was all that stood between Ireland’s fractured left of Labour and Sinn Féin, while the emissaries from Civil War politics, Reilly and Cowen, sat on the fringes.

First up was healthcare. We spent half an hour passing the buck on one of Ireland’s great modern failings, yet we got through that without anyone landing any blows likely to leave a mark, never mind buckle the knees of their opponents.

Kelly summed up the malaise of Ireland’s healthcare when he admitted “there’s a sort of consensus on healthcare,” around the table. Which felt more like an admission of the utter hopelessness of it all, rather than a moving show of solidarity on a literal life and death issue.

The Children' and Youth Affairs Minister launched into the Fine Gael party line on inheritance of disaster and production of recovery in his opening statements, but overall we were spared the same level of treading on that particular point in comparison with his party leader in the night’s other debate.

Reilly seemed happy to engage on points and became passionate about a few, if he did flounder once or twice.

Next we went to housing. Alan Kelly said we’d faced the “perfect storm” in housing, with construction the only industry to feel the recovery thus far.

If there was going to be a rounding on Kelly this would be it, and it was McDonald who took the first swipe.

She stung Kelly with the fact that just 28 social housing units were built in the first nine months of 2015, with 6000 people on waiting lists in her own constituency of Dublin Central.

Kelly detailed his work to incentivise developers to build apartments, while McDonald told him his party and coalition“have zero credibility.” Kelly was largely unperturbed, repeating the efforts he had made, including new building regulations.

Cowen dipped his toe into the mildly charged scrap and his arrival was greeted with the echoes of his party’s recent past.

Clifford asked Cowen if Fianna Fáil’s policy to offer assistance to first time buyers was “back to the future” stuff that was set only to inflate the housing market again

Cowen was in no mood for lowering himself into a scrappy bickering contest – as he scowled and told us, “I’m not in the business of interrupting, I’m in the business of informing the public of what the situation is.”

It was a full 40 minutes or so before we had our first raised voices of the evening. Reilly snarled across the table at Cowen, who scowled right back, and soon it all simmered again.

The coalition’s plans were discouraging developers, Cowen said: “The private sector cannot borrow funds ... banks are not lending.

“You’ve sat idly by and done nothing to incentivise the private sector,” he said.

Reilly swung right back with a minor variation on that favourite Fine Gael theme: “You want to inform the public of your born again vision, but you seem to neglect that you were the architects of the demise of this country?”

As Irish Water has slid out of the spotlight in the campaign, housing undoubtedly remains Kelly’s major weak spot.

As his rivals and ally hurled accusation and counter-claim, Kelly sat back quietly, his nose un-bloodied. When the dust settled he looked side to side, with a bit of dramatic flair thrown in and proclaimed: “On the right we have Fianna Fail” and “on the left we have Sinn Féin.”

He labelled them respectively as the parties of a wasteland past and a dreamland vision.

The Minister then announced to the nation: “There will be hundreds (of homes) built this year, there will be thousands built next year! We’re not going to lie to the public.”

“That’ll make a change,” Mary Lou replied, with a grin spreading across her face as she glanced side to side.

The Environment Minister told us “the Labour party has always punched above our weight" in terms of delivering as part of the current coalition.

“Dear God, if that’s you punching above your weight...” McDonald said, which sparked Kelly off on Sinn Féin’s record in the North.

“We’re not debating the North here,” Mick told the lads.

“Well remind the lads of that so,” McDonald said.

“I just did.”

Barry Cowen looked like his enthusiasm levels had fallen off a cliff.

“When you’re ready please, we’ll get back to debating,” he said.

Irish Water came and went, with Kelly sighing to dramatic effect as Cowen said Fianna Fáil “considered it”, and James Reilly telling the nation that Kelly had done a great job.

Mick wanted to know if Mary Lou felt the same way.

“I feel like in some sort of a twilight zone here,” she said.

As we wound down Mick had to ask Kelly and Cowen to pipe down, once again. With the curtain about to fall Mary Lou got in the final jab of the evening, aiming at the pair across the table.

“Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, brought to you by Mick Clifford and TV3.” Mick seemed to quite like that one.