The second seven-way leaders’ debate of the 2020 general election took place at Virgin Media headquarters last night in Dublin and proved to be a very loud affair indeed initially before descending into a more discursive second half.
The debate, chaired by Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates, saw the two presenters making more noise in the first two minutes than had been seen in both televised debates broadcast thus far put together.
It saw Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald come out swinging regarding accusations that her party’s budgetary promises, which include €4 billion in additional taxes and lavish spending on public services, do not stand up to scrutiny.
“Our figures were run by the Department of Finance, our plan produces a surplus of €3.4 billion after a five year term of Government,” she said.
“You’re working on the presumption that providing relief for people is reckless, I am not. Ordinary, working people deserve a break.”
Micheál Martin himself, when asked had he learned nothing from his 14 years in Government in presenting Fianna Fail’s own financial plans, said that he had learned “lots of lessons” in working “constructively for nine years in opposition”.
He said that his own party is the only one that has not allocated the entire €11bn figure in additional funding which the Department of Finance may make available. “Our priority is housing. Our priority is the issues that matter most to people,” he said.
The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asked Mr Yates “not to put me in the same basket as the others” in terms of financial recklessness, and said that last October’s budget had been deemed to be “prudent” by one journalist.
“Maybe we will have more money, maybe we won’t, but in either scenario who are you going to trust,” he said.
Labour’s Brendan Howlin chose to attack those promising tax cuts, such as Fine Gael itself, as perpetrating a “con job”. “If we want to fix this country we can’t give massive tax cuts,” he said.
Solidarity-People Before Profit’s Mick Barry said he would spend “even more” than the €11 billion figure. “We have 17 billionaires who have €40 billion between them. We’re owed €14.3 billion by Apple, who are in my constituency. They need to pay their taxes,” he said.
When asked whether or not he’s a landlord the Taoiseach replied that he isn’t but that “if you don’t have landlords people don’t have anywhere to rent” and prices rise uncontrollably.
Micheal Martin said he is “in favour of rent controls” but that the biggest way of dealing with the housing crisis is to “increase supply”.
A key facet of the debate, heralded in advance, hinged on the enmity between Fianna Fail and the resurgent Sinn Fein. Mary Lou McDonald decried the “flip flopping” of Micheal Martin on a rent freeze, which he previously supported Sinn Fein upon in the Dail but then declared it to be “unconstitutional”, as “astonishing”. She said that “Fianna Fail were the party of the developers, and Fine Gael are the party of the landlords”.
Possibly Mr Martin’s strongest moment of the night came when asked about his attitude to a border poll.
“The greatest barrier to a united Ireland over the past 40 years has been Sinnéin. They supported a campaign that murdered people. They went for a border poll after Brexit. When people hear that it threatens them,” he said.
Ms McDonald countered that “nobody needs a homily from Micheál Martin”.
In terms of coalition-forming, the Social Democrats’ Catherine Murphy said “we haven’t ruled out anyone”.
The Taoiseach once more said that he would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin “not because of what they’ve done in the past, but because of what they might do in the future”.
“For me the best possible outcome of the election is a Government without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The worst is a coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael,” Ms McDonald said.
Mr Varadkar pointed out that there is “one fundamental difference” between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael: “My party stands behind me in opposing coalition with Sinn Féin, Micheál Martin’s party does not stand behind him,” he said, citing the examples of TDs Pat “The Cope” Gallagher, Darragh O’Brien, and Kevin O’Keeffe.
On the subject of healthcare, Mr Varadkar defended the spend on the new National Children’s Hospital and repeated his previous soundbite that the only money wasted on the project was the €35 million “spent by Fianna Fáil in not building on the Mater site”.
Micheál Martin meanwhile said that “the difference between us and every other party here is that we’re not hanging about” on health. “We’re saying we will double the National Treatment Purchase Fund immediately to get people off waiting lists,” he said.
Meanwhile, no one would be drawn on a timeline for a possible border poll, with Mary Lou McDonald coming the closest to giving a timeframe. “We need it in the next five years,” she said.