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General Election 2020 Prime Time debate: leaders clash over housing and Special Criminal Court

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(left to right) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Presenter David McCullagh, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, Presenter Miriam O'Callaghan and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald at the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story IRISH Election. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

(left to right) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Presenter David McCullagh, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, Presenter Miriam O'Callaghan and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald at the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story IRISH Election. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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(left to right) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

(left to right) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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(left to right) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Presenter David McCullagh, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, Presenter Miriam O'Callaghan and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald at the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story IRISH Election. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

LEO Varadkar said that asking Micheál Martin to run the economy would be “like asking John Delaney to take over the FAI in nine years’ time”.

Mr Varadkar compared Fianna Fail to the controversial football chief during a televised debate on RTE’s Prime Time.

Varadkar delivered the stinging rebuke during the televised general election debate on RTE’s Prime Time in a section on the parties tax policies where Sinn Féin’s proposals were also heavily criticised.

Ms McDonald was criticised for her party’s proposal to raise taxes on higher earners. Mr Martin said the party had “magicked up the figures”.

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Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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He criticised Sinn Féin’s tax proposals detailing how they would involve numerous new taxes to raise some €4bn.

He said these were “magic numbers” and warned of the flight of capital from Ireland. “Investment is mobile,” he said. “People aren‘t going to hang around to be taxed out of existence.”

But Ms McDonald insisted: “The political establishment will find every reason in the world to provide breaks and reliefs to big corporate entities,” she said.

In a debate on health, Mr Varadkar was unable to guarantee that record trolley numbers would not be broken under his government if Fine Gael is re-elected. “Nobody can know that for sure,” he said. He said the policies of other parties would result in people waiting longer.

Mr Varadkar defended Fine Gael’s record on health and claimed it was only in the last two years that the government had balanced the books and was able to spend more on the health service. “I don’t think it’s right to say that we’ve had nine years,” he said.

Mr Martin said there was an urgent need to tackle hospital waiting lists by doubling funding for the National Treatment Purchase Fund which, he claimed, would take 100,000 people off the waiting lists over the next five years. He said the government had to fund home care packages “far more aggressively” in the coming years.

Mr Martin said there was a shortage of scanning and diagnostic equipment in hospitals. He claimed that Fianna Fáil had got “waiting lists down to six months” when in government. Mr Varadkar said that had been fact-checked and was found not to be true, but Mr Martin claimed this had been done through the NTPF.

Ms McDonald said that 500 beds currently closed across the system should be reopened and said Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were not promising enough extra homecare packages.

Ms McDonald was promising two free GP visits per person. Mr Varadkar said his party had brought in free GP care for under sixes and over 70s in government with Labour and had widened access for children with disabilities.

Mr Varadkar said children should not be means-tested based on their parents’ income as some of these parents pay a lot of tax.

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Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA Wire

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA Wire

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Ms McDonald repeatedly refused to give her personal view on the Special Criminal Court which is responsible for convicting serious criminals and terrorists.

Ms McDonald was asked her opinion on the court several times during the televised general election debate.

She said she was in favour of courts generally but would not directly address the Special Criminal Court which her party previously said should be abolished.

The court has successfully convicted members of the Provisional IRA.

She said Sinn Féin is now seeking a review of the court which would be led by a High Court judge.

However, she repeatedly refused to answer questions about her own views on the court when posed by hosts Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullagh.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he is ruling out any coalition with Sinn Féin because of its view on the Special Criminal Court.

He said he was concerned about the party’s past but also concerned about their present views on the court.

Mr Varadkar said Sinn Féin was against the Special Criminal Court which he said locks up “garda killers” and serious criminals such as members of the Kinihan crime gang.

He said Ms McDonald was not giving a straight answer on the question because she did not want people to know her views.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said Sinn Féin always votes against the Offences Against the State Act which legislates for the Special Criminal Court.

Mr Martin said Sinn Féin votes against the act because they are being told to by their “IRA comrades”.

Separately, the Taoiseach said his party was “driving change” over the last nine years. He highlighted economic and social changes.

He said all change is not for the better and noted the outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the election of US President Donald Trump.

He said voting for Sinn Fein would risk jobs, pensions and business.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin said he would urgently deal with the hospital and housing problems if elected. He said he would deal with the cost of living and reduce the financial burden of childcare.

Mary Lou McDonald said Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were “almost identical parties” and said voters recognise her party as an alternative.

She said her party is not captured by “power brokers” and “golden circles”.

She said it was “not credible” for Mr Martin to claim to be a “face of change” because Fianna Fail have been in government with Fine Gael for the last four years.

Mr Martin said the “big lie” of the campaign was that he was in government for the last four years.

He criticised Sinn Féin for collapsing the Northern Assembly for three years during Brexit negotiations.

Mr Varadkar said Fine Gael will emerge as the largest party after the election and he will seek to form a government with the Green Party and the Labour Party.

Mr Martin said he believed he can form a government without Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

The three leaders clashed over the housing crisis with Mr Varadkar coming under pressure to defend the government's record.

Mr Varadkar said some of his best days as Taoiseach was seeing young couples get the keys of new homes.

Ms McDonald seized on this to attack Mr Varadkar saying it "sounds patronising".

Mr Varadkar turned on Ms McDonald asking her how many people are homeless in Northern Ireland where Sinn Féin has been in government.

Miriam O'Callaghan told Ms McDonald to answer the question but in the end the Taoiseach did it for her.

He said the official statistics are 20,000 which is more than in this State where it has hovered at around 10,000.

He also said that waiting list in the North are longer and suicide rates are three times higher than in the South.

Ms McDonald said: "I’m sure somebody will fact check that figure and find that it’s wrong."

She said London controls the "purse strings" and there has been a decade of "Tory austerity".

She told Mr Varadkar he should challenge the British government on the issue.

Mr Varadkar said: "I actually have".

Earlier Mr Varadkar disputed a suggestion that Fine Gael has no new ideas on housing.

He blamed the economic crash for the situation but said the homeless figures are starting to fall and the government is continuing to provide more supply.

He said that a promised enhanced Help-to-Buy scheme would aide young people in buying homes.

Mr Varadkar said house prices have levelled off and claimed they would rise under what he described as "Fianna Fáil’s SSIA boom time scheme."

He also accused Fianna Fáil of stopping the building of social housing and he said this had been fact-checked by Independent.ie today.

Ms McDonald was challenged on where the workers would be found to build the 100,000 homes her party has promised.

She said workers would be moved away from building student accommodation and hotels to building homes and apprenticeships would be ramped up.

Mr Martin said housing is the burning issue of the campaign and insisted his party's planned SSIA-style scheme won't drive up prices.

He said it was just one of a number of measures and that affordable homes and council housing must be built on State land.

Mr Martin criticised the government over the lower levels of home ownership.

Mr Varadkar claimed most of the fall happened under Fianna Fáil and Mr Martin disputed this.

Ms McDonald criticised Mr Martin for "flip-flopping" on support for a rent freeze.

Mr Martin said it’s wrong and irresponsible to make a promise on something that has been advised as unconstitutional.

Ms O'Callaghan put it to Mr Varadkar that at the start of the election a homeless man was "lifted like a piece of rubbish" and suffered life-changing injuries and he made it into a political issue.

Mr Varadkar said: "My one regret is that incident happened and that poor man got injured in the way he did. "

He said housing is being arranged for him and he has asked for privacy and added: "I don’t want to make him an issue in this debate."

He said rough sleeping is down.

Online Editors