RTÉ 1’s Questions & Answers broadcast for the last time on Monday, bringing the curtain down on 21 years of John Bowman chairing debates on the days’ issues among politicians and pundits.
There is no doubt that over the last few years it had declined in quality and relevance, but in its heyday Questions & Answers undoubtedly provided Irish political TV with some memorable moments.
Each political anorak will have his/her favourites, and here are mine:
It was during summer 1996. The panel consisted of the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and an anonymous individual to represent the Alliance Party.
Mr Mallon, in a few minutes, reduced the Alliance Party member to silence. She was not heard of again throughout the rest of the programme.
Pat Doherty then caused shock by refusing to condemn the killing of Garda Gerry McCabe. Hushed and incredulous voices declared: “He’s not going to condemn it!” Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Of course he wasn’t going to! The astonishing thing would have been if he had. The audience’s comments revealed a certain naïvety among people in the early stages of the Peace Process.
Mr Mallon was made of sterner stuff and knew better how to handle this. He tackled Mr Doherty head on to such an extent that by the end of the programme, the Donegal man had conceded to retreat into tactful silence.
However the SDLP MP saved the best until last. His pièce de résistance was how he took on Conor Cruise O’Brien. Mr Mallon was already winning the debate hands down when he referred to O’Brien as “the opposite side of the same coin” to Pat Doherty. It hit a very raw nerve with the Cruiser who proceeded to lose control of himself.
With the Cruiser having a fit at being compared to a Shinner, Mr Mallon, remaining übercalm, spending the rest of the programme dancing a jig around and then wiping the floor with O’Brien.
A virtuoso display by the Armagh man, it was one of the best political performances I have ever seen and an object lesson in how to win a debate.
A more humorous exchange occurred in 1995 between journalist Vincent Browne and former Fianna Fáil minister Michael Kennedy. At the end of the show the two were still in debate, with John Bowman trying to wrap things up. Then, Mr Browne could be seen looking under his desk while talking.
Next he produced a massive tome - it was actually the Beef Tribunal report - from which he continued to pour forth facts and arguments. The report was now on the table and was the size of three or four telephone directories! Michael Kennedy just laughed as did John Bowman who said: “Quit while you’re ahead Vincent