The leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have taken part in a heated election debate on RTÉ’s Prime Time programme, with the housing crisis and a coalition government and tax under the spotlight.
Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald are making their final pitch to sway undecided voters before the General Election this Saturday.
The Fine Gael leader reiterated that he would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin, accusing them of being soft on crime. He said that not only was he concerned about Sinn Féin’s past, but  he also had concerns about the party’s present and future.
Ms McDonald responded that this was a “clarion call of desperation”, and that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil did not want any new ideas, new people or new energy in government. She said people are recognising her party as an alternative which stands up for the interests of the people.
When asked about the Special Criminal Court, which deals with dissident republican terrorism, she asserted that she was for the courts and for special powers.
Mr Varadkar accused her of not giving a straight answer.
Asked if she personally believes the Special Criminal Court should remain, @MaryLouMcDonald says we have 21st century criminals and we need 21st century processes to deal with them | Live #GE2020 blog: https://t.co/mjahvjVWlx#rteptpic.twitter.com/9yeZFqrDSA
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 4, 2020
When asked about voters having a thirst for change, he said that all change “is not change for the better”.
Urging voters to stick with his party, he cited Brexit and Donald Trump as examples of bad change, as he cautioned against support for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.
Mr Varadkar insisted his government had delivered real change in terms of social reform, constitutional change, economic improvements and navigating the country through Brexit.
Mr Martin said that he has brought about change in various departments while serving as a minister. He also insisted that his party had credible plans to transform public service delivery.
He said: “And what we want to do now in terms of health, for example, is bring about real immediate, urgent change in terms of getting patients off waiting lists, in terms of hiring more health professionals, in terms of renewal of equipment in hospitals and, above all, in terms of home care hours – about five million extra.”
Fianna Fáil leader @MichealMartinTD says throughout his career he has managed to bring about great change | Live #GE2020 blog: https://t.co/mjahvjVWlxpic.twitter.com/wioZ94ho5h
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 4, 2020
Housing
The three leaders also clashed on housing, rents and homelessness.
Ms McDonald said that the housing situation was a “social and economic catastrophe”, and that political will was needed to deal with the crisis. She said that plans by her party, which were announced in their election manifesto, to build 100,000 homes in five years were “credible”.
Mr Martin said that there has been very little impact on homelessness and affordable homes over the last few years by the government.
He had an “imaginative and innovative” platform on revitalising the construction industry, adding that there is a crisis and action was needed.
Leo Varadkar said that even though what has been done is not enough, efforts to deal with the issues were beginning to work following two years of investment.
He also said that the year before he became Taoiseach, less than 10,000 homes were built in Ireland, last year that figure rose to 21,500.
He challenged Sinn Féin on its record in tackling homelessness in Northern Ireland, saying that there were 20,000 homeless people there. Ms McDonald denied the claim.
Fine Gael leader @LeoVaradkar and Sinn Féin leader @MaryLouMcDonald clash over Sinn Féin’s record in government in Northern Ireland | Live #GE2020 blog: https://t.co/mjahvjVWlx#rteptpic.twitter.com/24DxcCZwEH
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 4, 2020
Health
When asked about what he was going to do to reduce hospital waiting times this year, the Fine Gael leader defended his party’s track record in health, citing financial restrictions.
He said that progress in areas such as Emergency Department overcrowding was not enough, and that Sláintecare was a plan that all parties signed up to.
“It may by a ten-year plan, but it is happening now,” he said.
However, Mr Martin accused Fine Gael of delaying the implementation of the Sláintecare plan.
He said that his party was promising to “urgently” deal with hospital waiting lists and double the Treatment Purchase Fund.
Ms McDonald said that this election is happening because of the government’s “failure” in health policy. When asked why her party is promising fewer hospital beds, nurses and midwives than others, she said that they are not.
She said that Sinn Féin has identified the capacity that is needed in the system and have “costed it accordingly”.
Tax
On taxation, Ms McDonald defended her party’s policy to get rid of property tax because she said Sinn Féin does not believe in a tax on the family home.
She said there is a better way to capture wealth, through a wealth tax.
Mr Varadkar said that Sinn Féin’s proposal of higher tax rates is too high, and that he wants to do more for middle income earners.
He said that putting Mr Martin back in charge of the economy would be like asking John Delaney to run the FAI again in nine years time.
Fine Gael leader @LeoVaradkar says putting Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil back in charge of the economy would be like asking John Delaney to take over the economy again in nine years. | Live #GE2020 blog: https://t.co/mjahvjVWlx#rteptpic.twitter.com/xXAo2Mlk7e
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 4, 2020
Meanwhile, the Fianna Fáil leader attacked Sinn Fein’s proposals on taxation, saying they do not add up.
He said investment is mobile and people are not going to hang around to face high tax rates from Sinn Féin.
Paul Quinn
The Sinn Féin leader was asked about the death of 21-year-old Paul Quinn, who was murdered in October 2007, and a request from his mother for an apology from Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy.
Mr Murphy told the BBC Paul Quinn was involved in smuggling and criminality.
Ms McDonald said that she spoke to Mr Murphy and he is aware that his comments caused hurt to the Quinn family. She said that he apologises and withdraws the remarks and will speak to the Quinn family.
Asked about comments made by Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy after the murder of Paul Quinn, @MaryLouMcDonald says Mr Murphy apologises for those remarks, he withdraws them, and will speak directly to Paul Quinn’s mother and family | Live #GE2020 blog: https://t.co/mjahvjVWlx#rteptpic.twitter.com/f6tEkJ2R8H
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 4, 2020
Retirement age
The party leaders were asked questions on the retirement age, and Mr Martin said that there was a lot of worry about whether people who reached the age of 65 would be left without a pension due to official reforms.
He said he came to this conclusion before the election campaign started, and that there is a lot of worry out there at the moment.
Mr Varadkar said that his party has listened to what people have said on the issue, and if they are reelected to office they will amend legislation so people who are 65 do not have to sign on for social welfare.
When asked about demographics and the potential of inadequate pensions in the future, Ms McDonald said that Sinn Féin is the only party saying people have an entitlement to their pension if they retire at 65.