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Prime Time leaders' debate: Our experts fact-check claims on housing, hospital beds, multinationals and pensions

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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. 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, 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. 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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Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during 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

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during 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. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story IRISH Election. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The last leaders' debate of the campaign was a feisty affair as Micheal Martin, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald battled it out on RTÉ's Prime Time.

Our experts were on hand to fact-check some of the claims being made by the three party leaders.

CLAIM – 20,000 are homeless in Northern Ireland

Leo Varadkar has claimed: “The number of homeless in Northern Ireland is 20,000”. He was arguing that other jurisdictions have serious homelessness problems too.

FACTCHECK by Environment Correspondent Caroline O’Doherty

Just under 20,000 households are on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s housing waiting list in the way that around 69,000 are on the waiting lists in the Republic. The actual homelessness figure in the North ie those in hostels or other emergency accommodation, is closer to 5,000 with the equivalent in the Republic being around 10,400.

Verdict: FALSE. There is a difference in terminology in North and South. People applying for social housing in the North generally present as ‘homeless’ because they need an alternative to their current accommodation but the majority are not in an immediate accommodation crisis.


CLAIM: There has been a drop in homelessness figures

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says we have seen a "significant" drop in homelessness figures in recent days

FACT-CHECK by Public Affairs Correspondent Amy Molloy

The latest data by the Department of Housing shows there were 9,731 people in emergency accommodation during the week of December 23-29th 2019.

This compares with 10,448 the previous month – a fall of 717.

VERDICT: Mostly true. While there has been a fall in numbers, there are still 9,713 people without a home. Homeless figures tend to fall every December as according to housing charities, landlords tend to delay evictions etc in the lead-up to Christmas.

CLAIM: Pension age is rising in Northern Ireland

Leo Varadkar said the state pension age will rise to 66 in Northern Ireland this year and the state pension is worth £125 a week

FACTCHECK by Industry Correspondent Anne-Marie Walsh
Verdict: Correct, give or take a few pounds. The pension age will rise to 66 in October. The basic state pension is worth £129.20 a week but a new state pension that is calculated differently for those who retired after 2016 is worth £168.60 a week.


CLAIM – Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy suggested murdered Paul Quinn was involved in criminality.

The family of Paul Quinn have long sought an apology from Conor Murphy over alleged remarks he made about their son. He was killed 13 years ago by a gang of IRA men who broke every bone in his body. His mother Breege has sought an apology again in recent days for accusations that Paul was linked to criminality. However, Mary Lou McDonald said earlier this week that Conor Murphy never did that.

Fact Check by Head of News Kevin Doyle

Independent.ie has obtained an audio clip from BBC which backs up a quote used by Miriam O’Callaghan during the Prime Time debate. In it, Mr Murphy says: “Paul Quinn was involved in smuggling and criminality. I think everybody accepts that.” Mary Lou McDonald now accepts that she was wrong, saying her “recollection was that he had not been as explicit as that”

VERDICT: TRUE. Conor Murphy directly linked Paul Quinn to criminality.


CLAIM – Rents are falling

Leo Varadkar has claimed: “According to Daft.ie today, rents have fallen for the first time in eight years.”

FACTCHECK by Environment Correspondent Caroline O’Doherty

The latest report by property website Daft.ie has found that nationally average rents fell by 0.1pc in the last three months of 2019 – the first overall quarterly decline since 2012. But the fall was driven by a 0.8pc decrease in rents outside the five cities. Within the cities, rents rose on average by 0.7pc over the same period. In Dublin, they rose slightly less – by 0.4pc.

Verdict: Partly TRUE. Fine Gael are correct to say that rents have fallen but the experience differs across the country and the figures confirm that there is still pressure on the rental market in the main urban areas.


CLAIM - Varadkar on hospital beds

Micheal Martin accused Leo Varadkar of saying when he was Minister for Health that more hospital beds can slow down productivity

FACT-CHECK by Health Correspondent Eilish O'Regan

In February 2016 Mr Varadkar in a Sunday Independent interview said in some hospitals sometimes when they have more beds and more resources “that is what kind of slows it down”

Verdict:True. But the context of his comment was that when a hospital is very crowded there is more of a push on to provide diagnostics and improve patient flow.

CLAIM: Multinationals hiring large numbers in Ireland

Micheal Martin said a quarter of a million people are employed at multinationals.

FACT-CHECK by Industry Correspondent Anne-Marie Walsh

There were 245,096 working at foreign multinationals last year, an all time high.
Verdict: Correct.


CLAIM - Mary Lou McDonald on pensions and population

The Sinn Fein leader claimed that predictions about the ageing population and growing cost of the state pension system could be reversed if younger people are encouraged to start families through the ability to own their own homes. She said "demographics will follow".

FACTCHECK by Industry Correspondent Anne-Marie Walsh

The CSO and KPMG have predicted a major increase in the number of over 65s in the coming decades. The number of workers to pensioners is expected to fall from 4.9 per pensioner to two per pensioner by 2055. And KPMG predicted the social insurance fund could clock up an accumulated deficit of €404bn by 2071.

Verdict: Highly suspect claims based on the latest expert predictions.

CLAIM –Homeownership is at the lowest level since 1971

Micheál Martin has claimed: “We have the lowest level of homeownership in this country since 1971.” He blamed the Fine Gael government for this – but Leo Varadkar instantly hit back claiming the biggest fall occurred under Fianna Fáil governments.

FACTCHECK by Head of News Kevin Doyle

Homeownership rates in Ireland have traditionally been above the EU average – but in recent decades the number of people with their own property has fallen. In 1991 homeownership stood at 80pc – but by 2016 it dropped to 67.6pc. The number of owner occupied households fell from 1,149,924 to 1,147,552 between 2011 and 2016 (when Fine Gael were in power).

Verdict: Partly TRUE. Fianna Fáil are correct to say that homeownership is at its lowest level in decades – but this trend had begun long before Fine Gael came to power. Homeownership actually peaked at about 80.1pc in 1991.

CLAIM – House prices have stopped rising

Leo Varadkar has claimed: “Since we brought it [the Help to Buy scheme] in, house prices have levelled off.” He was refuting the claim that financial aid to house buyers only encourages developers to raise house prices.

FACTCHECK by Environment Correspondent Caroline O’Doherty

The current Help to Buy scheme was introduced in mid-2016 to help first-time buyers get a foot on the property ladder. Around 16,000 buyers have benefitted from it. House prices, however, did rise in 2016, 2017 and 2018, most significantly in 2017 when they increased by around 8pc. Nationally, the rise slowed to just over 1pc last year which does indicate a stabilisation. But that was driven mainly by a drop in prices in Dublin – outside the capital, prices rose by about 3.5pc.

Verdict: Mainly TRUE. Fine Gael are right in saying house prices have levelled off on average but the trend differs across the country and it’s hard to gauge if the Help to Buy scheme makes any difference to prices as it covers a relatively small number of people and house prices rose significantly in the first two and a half years of the scheme’s operation.

CLAIM – Fianna Fáil hasn’t been in government for the past four years

Micheál Martin has claimed “the big lie of the campaign” is that his party were in government for the past four years. Sinn Féin routinely described Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as “partners” in government.

FACTCHECK by Head of News Kevin Doyle

After 70 days of the negotiations in 2016, Fianna Fáil signed up to a ‘Confidence and Supply’ arrangement that allowed Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny be re-elected as Taoiseach. Under the deal Fianna Fáil agreed to abstain on budgetary issues and votes on no confidence thereby ensuring the government could function. In return Fine Gael agreed to a number of key demands from Fianna Fáil, including the abolition of water charges.

Verdict: TRUE. The confidence and supply was unprecedented in this country. It meant Fianna Fáil allowed the Government to stay in power – but they did so from the opposition benches.


CLAIM – Sinn Féin doesn’t support the Special Criminal Court

Leo Varadkar claims Sinn Féin doesn’t support the Special Criminal Court and is soft on crime.

FACTCHECK by Legal Affairs Editor Shane Phelan

Before the last election, Sinn Féin said it would abolish the non-jury court which deals with paramilitary and gangland crime.

Its position has softened since then and the same pledge is not in its current manifesto.

Mary Lou McDonald did not directly answer questions on the issue tonight. She said: “I accept we need mechanisms and special powers”.

She also wants a High Court judge to do a review of various aspects of the justice system.

The party’s justice spokesman Martin Kenny recently said the court was dated and not fit to deal with modern crime. He also suggested “a review”.

Verdict: TRUE. Sinn F��in clearly has longstanding issues with the non-jury court. While its stance shifted a bit, it is still not happy with the court as it currently operates.


CLAIM: - Cost of national children's hospital

Mary Lou McDonald said the new national children’s hospital is the most expensive in the world.

FACTCHECK by Health Correspondent Eilish O'Regan
So far the cost of construction is €1.4bn
:The Royal Adelaide in Australia cost around €1.5bn to construct, for instance.
Verdict: Unclear. But the children’s hospital is not yet built and may yet prove to be among the most expensive.

CLAIM - Fianna Fail’s opponents claim the party made a deliberate decision to reduce the number of social houses built by local authorities when in government.

During RTÉ’s seven-way TV debate, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said: “Fianna Fáil hollowed out the capacity of local authorities to build houses in the time of plenty… they left it to the private sector and bought and leased houses from the private sector.”

Mr Martin insisted: “No, no, that’s not true, that’s not true.”

FACTCHECK by political correspondent Hugh O'Connell

Fianna Fáil states that between 2004 and 2010 the total number of social houses built by local authorities was 33,705 compared to 10,630 between 2011 and 2018 when Fine Gael was in office. “Fianna Fáil out built Fine Gael, over 3 to 1 in local authority housing,” the party said.

This claim is broadly backed by Department of Housing figures for the past 16 years.

But figures for each year show that while nearly 5,000 local authority houses were built in 2007 and again in 2008, there was a significant drop in direct builds after that. In 2009 3,362 local authority houses were built, while in 2010 this figure fell to 1,328.

While the economic crash may be to blame Dáil statements by then Fianna Fáil junior housing minister Michael Finneran signal that there was a shift in policy.

Mr Finneran told Dáil in December 2009 that the government reform programme involved “a shift away from construction/acquisition and a one size fits all approach to meeting social housing needs towards a more graduated system of supports”.

In 2010 Mr Finneran said the government had a “lesser reliance on construction and acquisition” and was restructuring the social housing investment programme “to allow for a greater role for the Rental Accommodation Scheme and leasing” which, he said, “offer the most effective and efficient response to market realities and housing need”.

Presented with these comments, Fianna Fáil did deny that there was a conscious policy shift in its final years in government, but a spokesperson insisted: “Our record on building homes is clear. We out-built Fine Gael in every metric over a comparable period of time while in government.”

VERDICT

Mainly TRUE. While Fianna Fáil has a strong record when it comes to building social housing it is evident that it moved away from directly building them in its final years in office.

Online Editors