It’s a debate about a debate. Someone call Christopher Nolan, or at the very least Fine Gael as it hasn’t accepted its invitation to participate in The People’s Debate with Vincent Browne on TV3.
Government parties remain sketchy over their involvement in the series of debates which are pre-recorded and aired weekly from each of Ireland’s 40 constituencies.
Run in a ‘town hall style’ format, the debates are chaired by the formidable host with sitting TDs and an audience of local constituents. Thus far two broadcasts have taken place, for the respective constituencies of Wicklow (14 January) and Clare (21 January).
The inaugural debate at the Grand Hotel in Wicklow was lively, showcased a variety of viewpoints and enabled voters to bring both local and personal issues to the fore. However, as two relatively unknown Independent TDs gained considerable exposure on a national stage, three members of the current government seem to have been feeling the effects of the cold snap that night.
Fine Gael TDs Simon Harris (also a Junior Minister) and Andrew Doyle, along with Deputy Anne Ferris of Labour, failed to show up and face the wrath of disillusioned spectators. This followed much speculation surrounding the political parties’ perception of TV3’s brainchild.
Rumoured acceptances and public rejections of participation in the shows were widely reported from both camps. Fine Gael announced it would not be sending any representatives to sit on the constituency panels, attributing the decision to a lack of organisation and information about running orders, along with last minute notice of the recording date.
Speaking on Morning Ireland on the date of the first recording, Browne said the plans had been in place before Christmas for all elected Wicklow representatives to take part. He described the turnaround as “surprising”.
Of course, Fine Gael remains staunchly opposed to the notion that an election may be called earlier than next year. This was illustrated by the reprimand received by Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney last week for prematurely discussing the possibility of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition.
Fianna Fáil described its opposition’s withdrawal from the debate as a threat to a healthy democracy. Sinn Féin expressed concern about underrepresentation as only sitting TDs are to be given a seat at the top table. Labour politely declined but said it might take part at a time “much closer” to an election.
What a potential omen that it sent a representative the following week to debate in Ennis.
He was joined by a Fianna Fáil Deputy, with a no-show from two Fine Gael representatives. Browne deemed the Kilfenora Céilí Band who opened the show a worthy substitute.
Martin Conway, a Fine Gael Senator who has yet to decline an invitation from the presenter, made an appearance at the recording.
“If I had a problem being here I wouldn’t have shown up.”
He praised the uniqueness of the series in being the first televised constituency-by-constituency debates to take place in Ireland. The Senator said it was a great opportunity to engage with local people and revealed that many Fine Gael members he had been spoken with wanted their party represented on the show.
The TDs in attendance at each debate were offered an invaluable two minutes of uninterrupted camera time to sell themselves to constituents. This preceded a gruelling by constituents and Browne, the man The Guardian once christened as “Ireland’s Jeremy Paxman”.
At the Wicklow show, due to a lack of government representation, the host had to take the viewpoint of the parties in power to maintain a level of balance required by broadcasting regulations. This came across as uncomfortable and forced on Browne’s part, as any viewer of his late-night talk show knows his fondness for holding legislators to account, in particular Fine Gael who seem almost scared to appear on the show in its ordinary format also.
And Enda has long since banished Browne from the Christmas card list. People are likely to remember an incident in 2010 when the controversial commentator suggested the leader lock himself in a dark room with a glass of whiskey and a gun. He later apologised.
However, this argument spans decades. Back in 1982 Browne claimed Kenny was “purporting to be a TD” on the Late Late Show. Some say the journalist is bitter over being rejected a nomination to run for the party in 1994.
In an interview on Newstalk this month, Browne was quizzed about the possible influence his spat with the Taoiseach had on Fine Gael’s involvement in his series.
“I would be surprised if it had anything to do with that”, he said.
“I assume they just don’t want to face a public audience − even of their own constituents − because of the public anger and they wish to curtail such encounters as much as possible.”
Yet this is what will happen when a General Election is announced, as candidates face hostility and even harassment from the electorate. They are unlikely to be offered the same chance to defend themselves that The People’s Debate offers, or the same level of publicity. With the most recent Red C poll indicating 24 per cent approval for Fine Gael and just nine per cent for Labour, the parties need to keep the voters sweet.
However the empty chairs on the televised debates are only going to leave a sour taste in people’s mouths.
TV3 are investing considerable resources into the programme, and they are hoping for results. With UTV Ireland a few channel hops away they need to generate interest. Nonetheless without proper political representation, the strength of the show is undoubtedly weakened.
One might ponder would the situation be different if attached to the validity of the state broadcaster, although it remains to be seen whether it would have staged the bold move of creating this series in the first place.
It will be interesting to see how this week’s debate pans out, with Cork North-West having two Fine Gael TDs and one Fianna Fáil representative. Using the current equation, only one TD may actually be present.
Browne continues to keep the invitation open for all parties to attend.
The Cork North-West edition of The People’s Debate with Vincent Browne will air on Wednesday 28 January at 10pm on TV3.
By Ciara Treacy
Image courtesy of Google Images