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McDonald may find devil is in the details if she gets TV spot with Varadkar and Martin

Colette Browne


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Promises: Housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin, finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, president Mary Lou McDonald and Shane O’Brien, candidate for Dún Laoghaire, at the launch of Sinn Féin’s General Election manifesto at the Temple Bar Gallery and Studios in Dublin. Photo: Collins

Promises: Housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin, finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, president Mary Lou McDonald and Shane O’Brien, candidate for Dún Laoghaire, at the launch of Sinn Féin’s General Election manifesto at the Temple Bar Gallery and Studios in Dublin. Photo: Collins

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Promises: Housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin, finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, president Mary Lou McDonald and Shane O’Brien, candidate for Dún Laoghaire, at the launch of Sinn Féin’s General Election manifesto at the Temple Bar Gallery and Studios in Dublin. Photo: Collins

The perceived wisdom is that the inclusion of Mary Lou McDonald in RTÉ's forthcoming leaders' debate would be a win for Sinn Féin. In reality, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could be the biggest beneficiaries.

There is now no denying the trend in the opinion polls. Fianna Fáil is leading the pack but remaining relatively static at between 25pc and 26pc; Fine Gael is in the doldrums and languishing at 23pc; while support for Sinn Féin is surging and is now hovering between 19pc and 21pc.

Delving into 'The Irish Times'/MRBI poll, a likely reason for Sinn Féin's resurgence is people want change, with 38pc agreeing it is time for a different government and a further 37pc professing to want a radical change.

When it comes to issues important to the electorate, the party has been assiduous in publishing alternative budgets every year to indicate how it would differ from Fine Gael in addressing our biggest problems.

The net result is Sinn Féin very early on identified the issues that would dominate this election - housing, the cost of life crisis, pensions and health - and drew up policies to address these issues long before the election was called and has been using articulate spokespeople, like Pearse Doherty and Eoin Ó Broin, to hammer them home at every opportunity.

Given the level of trust and confidence being invested in Sinn Féin by a large cohort of voters, it is important its policies are subject to intense scrutiny. Regrettably, to date that analysis has been missing.

On housing, Sinn Féin's rental policy is easy to understand and easy to stand over. It says it will freeze rents for three years and use a tax credit to refund one month's rent - up to €1,500 - to renters.

However, when it comes to increasing the supply of homes, things become more complicated.

The party is promising to deliver the largest public housing building programme in the history of the State - 100,000 public homes on public land.

Given only 7,500 social homes were delivered by Fine Gael last year, it remains unclear how Sinn Féin can ramp up delivery to 25,000 units per annum.

Mr Ó Broin has stated that, with Sinn Féin in government, the State would directly build more homes, planning and taxation changes would divert construction from co-living and build-to-rent developments to social and affordable homes. Apprenticeships would be increased from 25,000 to 53,000 over the next five years to address a lack of workers in the sector.

The inability of local authorities to deliver on projects like O'Devaney Gardens - and with construction yet to start on the Glass Bottle site in Ringsend which has the capacity to deliver 3,500 homes - indicates the State overseeing projects is no guarantee homes will be built.

Changes to the tax code and planning reforms can certainly incentivise development in certain areas but they can also spook the market, postponing investment decisions and delaying projects.

In relation to the capacity of the workforce to deliver 100,000 public homes, Ms McDonald stated at Monday's leaders' debate on RTÉ that her intention was to encourage expat construction workers to return home and join the workforce here.

She should be reminded of Simon Harris's farcical attempts to woo 1,000 nurses back to the health service in 2016. In the event, only 36 people turned up to the first day of a recruitment drive.

It is fanciful to rely on an army of Irish workers leaving comfortable lives they have settled into abroad to save the day and return to these shores to help construct 100,000 homes.

Sinn Féin needs to better explain how it will deliver its plans. Vastly increasing the number of apprenticeships is a positive measure that will have returns in the medium to long term, but will do little to increase supply in the short term.

On taxation, Sinn Féin is proposing to eradicate the country's only wealth tax, the property tax, at a cost of €485m per annum despite the fact there is a 97pc compliance rate in payments. Among the new levies that would be introduced is a 1pc wealth tax on net wealth over €1m, which would net only €89m.

Why? Because rich people are very adept at making their wealth hard to identify and hard to quantify. Their mansions, on the other hand, are very hard to hide.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are also promising to erode the tax base with changes to income tax bands and the USC, with Sinn Féin also promising to exempt income under €30,000 from the USC.

To be fair to Sinn Féin - and unlike the other parties - it is also proposing tax increases for those earning more than €100,000, which would raise an estimated €712m. The sustainability of these hefty increases over time is also something that needs to be examined.

Publishing a radical and ambitious manifesto, seeking to overhaul taxation and housing policy, does not mean the manifesto is not credible.

It does mean, however, the party standing over those policies needs to do some serious work to convince voters its pledges are deliverable.

Sinn Féin has positioned itself as offering the electorate something manifestly different from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and its manifesto certainly bears out that distinction. A three-way debate between the party leaders would be the best way to publicly test their competing policy proposals.

Yes, it would mean Sinn Féin had an opportunity to sell their proposals to voters, but it would equally provide Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil with a forum to undermine those proposals and stem any surge towards the party.

It would also be much fairer than excluding Sinn Féin from the debate, allowing Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin to spend a significant portion of time attacking the party with nobody present to defend it.

On housing, all of the party leaders could be asked to commit to policy changes they would implement in their first 100 days of office and asked how long it would take before there was a measurable increase in supply.

On taxation, the wisdom of eroding the tax base, at a time when each party agrees huge investment in public services is required, could be teased out.

And the issue of Sinn Féin's Ard Comhairle, and who actually directs policy, could finally be put to bed.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have ruled Sinn Féin out as a coalition partner, but if the poll results were to be replicated on election day they would have very little option but to seriously consider it.

Sinn Féin's policies, attractive to many, have not yet received the level of scrutiny of those of the larger parties.

A three-way debate would address this and provide Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin with an opportunity to convince voters of their belief that Sinn Féin should not be trusted.

Irish Independent