FINE Gael leader Enda Kenny last night claimed he could deliver a reduction of 30,000 staff in the public service without resorting to compulsory redundancies.
But Mr Kenny struggled to explain his party's policy to abolish compulsory Irish as a Leaving Cert subject -- amid claims it would lead to the language's "gradual death".
Mr Kenny was put under pressure by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Labour's Eamon Gilmore during the historic leaders' debate in Irish.
In the first three-way debate of the campaign, the leaders clashed on a variety of economic and policy issues, including the bank guarantee and the Croke Park deal.
Mr Kenny sought to quell a growing backlash from Irish-language activists and Gaeltacht communities over his plan to downgrade the status of the language in schools.
He had to emphasise that it would not be made non-compulsory until a review of Irish as a Leaving Cert subject was carried out -- and his party would be giving bonus points to students who did take it.
But Fianna Fail leader Mr Martin insisted that the move would lead to the "gradual death" of the Irish language, while Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said it would destroy the Gaeltacht economies that depend on the arrival of Irish language students every summer.
All three leaders were comfortable and relaxed and showed a good command of the Irish language.
And they were questioned on subjects not featured greatly in the previous two leaders' debates -- such as farming, fishing, tourism and the Irish language.
Mr Gilmore got his point across about the need to focus on jobs.
"The economy can't recover through tax increases and spending cuts. Jobs must be created.
"And we have to look at how that can be done. I don't agree with Micheal Martin.
"The country is ruined, the economy is ruined. Fianna Fail has ruined it. And the worst decision this Government took was to bailout Anglo Irish Bank," he said.
Mr Kenny was far more at ease than in the previous leaders' debate -- and took on Mr Martin on several occasions.
"First of all, I agree with Micheal Martin for the first time ever. He was correct about the increase in exports in the 1990s -- Fine Gael and Labour handed over power to Fianna Fail," he said.
However, Mr Martin hit back by saying there was no doubt Fine Gael would introduce more taxes "through the back door" even if it did not increase income tax.
"There will be worse pressure then on the small businesses and there are 700,000 people employed in small businesses," he said.
Although Mr Kenny said Fine Gael's 30,000 public sector redundancies would be voluntary and would not affect frontline services, Mr Martin said Fine Gael's 30,000 redundancies were too much. "In my opinion, they will be unable to achieve that," Mr Martin said.
Mr Kenny spoke about his party's plan to abolish the €10 flight travel tax -- which the Government said it was going to cut to €3. But unlike Mr Gilmore, he refused to commit to reversing cutbacks to subsidies for flights to regional airports -- known as the public service obligation levy.