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General Election 2020: The 10 defining moments


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Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin meeting a voter after he voted in the Irish General Election at St Anthony's Boys National School in Ballinlough, Cork. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin meeting a voter after he voted in the Irish General Election at St Anthony's Boys National School in Ballinlough, Cork. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin meeting a voter after he voted in the Irish General Election at St Anthony's Boys National School in Ballinlough, Cork. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire

It was a short, sharp campaign with no shortage of drama. Here are the 10 key moments as compiled by Cormac McQuinn.

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1. ‘Come out ye Black and Tans’

The controversy over the planned commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) blew up in the first week of January before the election was even called. The Fianna Fail Mayor of Clare Cathal Crowe sparked the furore — and simultaneously did his own election chances no harm — by saying he wouldn’t attend the event in Dublin Castle. He branded it as an “overstretch” and “historical revisionism gone too far”. Others followed and it wasn’t long before the Government was being forced to deny claims that the commemoration was a celebration of the notorious Black and Tans who backed the RIC during the War of Independence.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan who had spearheaded the commemoration made an embarrassing U-turn saying it would be deferred though it’s unlikely it will ever go ahead — in its original form anyway. As the Wolfe Tones’ Come Out Ye Black and Tans song topped the charts, the fiasco did Fine Gael no favours in the days leading up to the calling of the election.

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The Black and Tans preparing to leave a barracks Ireland,1922

The Black and Tans preparing to leave a barracks Ireland,1922

The Black and Tans preparing to leave a barracks Ireland,1922

2. Varadkar’s day one gaffe

On the first full day of the election campaign it emerged that a homeless man in Dublin was severely injured after industrial machinery was used to clear his tent while he was still in it. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar expressed sympathy and promised an investigation but came under fire as he also said that the Fianna Fail Lord Mayor of Dublin, Paul McAuliffe, should make a statement on the incident. It was an own goal by Mr Varadkar on the issue of housing and homelessness and he was put on the defensive as Fianna Fail were quick to pounce.

Darragh O’Brien — Fianna Fail’s housing spokesman — accused him of a “pathetic” bid to politicise the issue. It arose again in the TV debate last week as RTE’s Miriam O’Callaghan asked him about the homeless man “lifted like a piece of rubbish”. Mr Varadkar said: “My one regret is that incident happened and that poor man got injured in the way he did.” The housing crisis blighted Fine Gael on the election trail.

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BLEAK: A homeless man with his tent on the banks of the Grand Canal outside the Hilton Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron

BLEAK: A homeless man with his tent on the banks of the Grand Canal outside the Hilton Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron

BLEAK: A homeless man with his tent on the banks of the Grand Canal outside the Hilton Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron

3. Spate of violent crime

The horrific murder and dismemberment of Drogheda teenager Keane Mulready-Woods shocked the country in the opening week of the campaign. There were three separate shooting incidents as well as the stabbing to death of Cork student Cameron Blair that same week. Fine Gael came under pressure over its claim to be the “party of law and order”. Mr Varadkar said it’s the Government’s job “to get on top” of the violence and insisted that was being done through the “unprecedented resources” for the Garda.

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Fianna Fail talked about the possibility that the evidence of a chief superintendent could be admissible in Special Criminal Court (SCC) cases against gang members. The party’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan also criticised how Sinn Fein did not support the SCC. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald was under pressure on the issue for most of the campaign with Mr Varadkar claiming last week that her party was “soft on crime”. Sinn Fein’s plan to review the SCC looked weak compared to others saying it should be used to crack down on gang thugs.

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited Drogheda Garda Station following the murder (Brian Lawless/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited Drogheda Garda Station following the murder (Brian Lawless/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited Drogheda Garda Station following the murder (Brian Lawless/PA)

4. Scramble to develop pension policies

Sinn Fein and Labour outflanked the others with promises on the qualification age for the State pension. With the pension age due to go up to 67 next year Sinn Fein promised to bring it back to 65 while Labour said they would keep it at 66. This prompted panic in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael that they’d lose the grey vote. At one point Age Action Ireland claimed older people were “being used as pawns” as the parties scrambled to develop policies. In the end Fianna Fail settled on deferring next year’s planned rise in the qualification age to 67 pending the outcome of a review. It promised to pay a transition pension to 65 and 66-year-olds in the interim.

Fine Gael promised a State transition payment for those who retire at 66 and a new “State Pathway Pension” for people retiring at 65. This would mean they don’t have to sign on the dole. Both parties promised an extra €5-a-week on the State pension each year over the course of a government. Depending on who leads the government — and who else is included in it — the rise of the pension age to 67 looks set to be delayed at the very least.

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Turn back the clock: Siptu launches its Stop 67 campaign calling for the Government’s pension decision to be reversed. Photo: Mark Condren

Turn back the clock: Siptu launches its Stop 67 campaign calling for the Government’s pension decision to be reversed. Photo: Mark Condren

Turn back the clock: Siptu launches its Stop 67 campaign calling for the Government’s pension decision to be reversed. Photo: Mark Condren

5. Fine Gael’s bizarre social media strategy

Fine Gael was subject to derision for its social media attack ads that probably did more damage to Mr Varadkar’s party than the main targets, Fianna Fail. The Taoiseach was forced to insist he wasn’t embarrassed by a video purporting to show senior Fianna Fail TDs running around looking for policies as the Benny Hill tune played in the background. The video was removed by Fine Gael within 12 hours of being posted amid an online backlash.

Another Fine Gael video showed senior ministers lining up to say they would never go into government with Sinn Fein. But the succession of ‘nos’ and ‘no ways’ to camera was hijacked by political opponents. The Labour Party posed the question “Will Fine Gael stop wasting public money, build homes and fix health?” and used the clips of ministers saying no as the answer in their own social media post. Incidentally the two largest parties have been spending tens of thousands of euro on social media advertising. Facebook figures show Fine Gael spent €46,422 in the week up to February 5 alone while Fianna Fail spent €31,924. It remains to be seen if it was money well spent.

6. Brexit and Climate Change - the election non-issues

Fine Gael very much believed that they would get a Brexit bounce from the involvement of the Taoiseach, Tanaiste Simon Coveney and Europe Minister Helen McEntee in the tricky process that led to the deal with the UK. A crash-out was avoided for now but Brexit Day came and went on January 31 and Fine Gael’s support continued to slide in the polls. The public shrugged at visits to Dublin by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Fianna Fail claimed Brexit wasn’t coming up on the doors and they’re correct that voters cared more about housing, health and the cost of living. The party was stung by Fine Gael’s rubbishing of the alternative Brexit team led by Micheal Martin. It led Mr Martin to claim in the closing days that Ms McEntee’s involvement had been over-hyped. She hit back saying the last thing Fianna Fail negotiated in Europe was the Troika bailout.

Meanwhile, despite last year’s ‘Green wave’, teen campaigner Greta Thunberg, and the Australian wildfires, the threat of climate change barely got a look-in during the election debate. The Green Party still expects to do well. Its leader Eamon Ryan blamed issues like pensions and controversy surrounding Sinn Fein for the climate crisis not coming to the fore of the campaign.

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Leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan casting his vote Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan casting his vote Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan casting his vote Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

7. ‘Playing the man and not the ball’

It was an election of personalised attacks. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar even suffered one from his own side. Fine Gael candidate Catherine Noone was forced into a grovelling apology for remarks where she said Mr Varadkar’s “a bit wooden” and “autistic like”. He was also on the receiving end of controversial comments by Sinn Fein councillor Paddy Holohan. He referred to Mr Varadkar being gay and said he wanted a “family man” to run the country and also questioned Mr Varadkar’s passion for Ireland because of his Indian heritage. Mr Holohan apologised but was later suspended by Sinn Fein for separate derogatory comments about women.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney meanwhile, attacked Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin saying he knows him “better than most” and “he is not the person I want leading Ireland into the second half of the Brexit challenge”. Mr Martin hit out at Fine Gael claiming they’re from “a more privileged background” than Fianna Fail. And Fianna Fail’s Michael McGrath accused Mr Varadkar of taking a “personalised, nasty approach” to politics as he responded to the Taoiseach’s claim that some in his party are “backwoodsmen” who oppose “social progress”. Needless to say there were a lot of accusations of ‘playing the man, not the ball’ thrown around during the campaign.

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Leo Varadkar and Catherine Noone (PA)

Leo Varadkar and Catherine Noone (PA)

Leo Varadkar and Catherine Noone (PA)

8. The TV debates

It should have been an easy question for the Taoiseach — after all he’d answered it before. But he froze when asked on the first Virgin Media debate if he had ever taken illegal drugs. While Micheal Martin was able to immediately answer no, Mr Varadkar referred to what he told Hot Press years ago and Mr Kenny had to follow up to get the answer that he had in fact dabbled. He smoked cannabis “a bit in my college years” was what he told the magazine in 2010. RTE’s Claire Byrne was praised for her handling of the first debate involving seven party leaders.

But the Virgin Media one was somewhat chaotic with one of the hosts, Ivan Yates, coming in for criticism for his hectoring style. The minnows struggled to make an impact in those debates but Labour’s Brendan Howlin performed well. Sinn Fein were livid when Mary Lou McDonald was excluded from head-to-head debates between Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin planned by both broadcasters. After Sinn Fein’s rise in the polls RTE did a U-turn and Ms McDonald got to take on the other two leaders in the last debate. However, it may have been a case of careful what you wish for as she floundered and repeatedly refused to give her personal view on the Special Criminal Court. And the moment of the night was when she was confronted over Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy’s false claim that murdered 21-year-old Paul Quinn was involved in criminality.

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(left to right) Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, Solidarity People Before Profit politician Richard Boyd Barrett, Social Democrats joint leader Roisin Shortall, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Irish Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin, during the seven way RTE leaders debate Niall Carson/PA Wire

(left to right) Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, Solidarity People Before Profit politician Richard Boyd Barrett, Social Democrats joint leader Roisin Shortall, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Irish Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin, during the seven way RTE leaders debate Niall Carson/PA Wire

(left to right) Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, Solidarity People Before Profit politician Richard Boyd Barrett, Social Democrats joint leader Roisin Shortall, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Irish Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin, during the seven way RTE leaders debate Niall Carson/PA Wire

9. Sinn Féin dogged by legacy of IRA terror

For 13 years the family of Paul Quinn courageously pushed for the apology for the remarks made by Conor Murphy. Mr Quinn was beaten to death by a gang associated with the Provisional IRA in 2007. It took the issue being raised during an election for Mr Murphy to finally apologise. Mr Quinn’s mother Breege is still asking that he explicitly says the words “Paul Quinn was not a criminal”.

And the family also want him to give police the names of IRA men he claims he spoke to in 2007 who said the terror group were not involved. Sinn Fein has offered no commitment that he will do that. On the campaign trail in Dublin North West, Ms McDonald ignored a question on whether the local candidate Dessie Ellis was the kind of figure that puts people off Sinn Fein. Mr Ellis was an IRA member and explosives expert who was sentenced to a 10-year jail term in the 1980s. In one of her final interviews of the campaign Newstalk’s Pat Kenny confronted Ms McDonald with a litany of IRA atrocities from the Enniskillen bomb to the murder of Garda Jerry McCabe. He put it to her that “you don’t like it but it is important to remind those who don’t have long memories what the violent history of your party’s association with the Provisional IRA is”. Ms McDonald said it’s “absolutely essential that the conflict is remembered” and “not glossed over or glamorised because real people suffered”. Sinn Fein’s apparent surge in support is particularly strong among younger voters, many of whom may not remember the dark days of the Troubles.

10. ‘Coalitionology’

Throughout the election Fine Gael and Fianna Fail claimed that the other party would do a government deal with Sinn Fein despite both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin ruling it out. Any hint given in recent years by their TDs that they’d be open to coalition with Sinn Fein was presented as evidence by the other party that they can’t be trusted on the issue. Mr Varadkar offered the prospect of a grand coalition with Fianna Fail “as a last resort” and Mr Martin shot that down. He wants to do a deal with Labour, the Greens and others.

At one point Fianna Fail’s Michael McGrath complained that too much of the campaign had been spent debating “coalitionology”. Expect much more of it as well as wheeling and dealing and political intrigue as numbers are crunched in the coming days, weeks and perhaps months. Election 2020’s outcome is likely to make forming a government incredibly difficult.

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Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin pictured with Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael Leo varadkar and Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald on set before the start of the Prime Time Leaders Debate in RTE.:Frank McGrath

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin pictured with Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael Leo varadkar and Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald on set before the start of the Prime Time Leaders Debate in RTE.:Frank McGrath

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin pictured with Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael Leo varadkar and Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald on set before the start of the Prime Time Leaders Debate in RTE.:Frank McGrath


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