Housing and crime dominated the first half of tonight’s RTÉ election TV debate with leaders also clashing on policies, coalition options and openly trading blows.
While Taoiseach Leo Varadkar came under attack with claims his party had failed to fix the housing crisis, there was also criticism of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin for supporting the government.
Crime and the fight against drugs also saw the seven leaders offer different approaches on how to reduce the involvement of young people with gangs and suggestions on how to protect communities.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said his preference was for education in communities on how crime and drugs caused harm and even prevented young people from getting visas abroad.
He said inner city task forces, similar to one in Dublin, could be rolled out in other communities impacted by crime.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said people “shouldn’t disregard” the connection between poverty and drugs in communities.
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said it should not be about what individuals consume, any more than about someone getting drunk. He suggested a government should look at decriminalisation and “cuts to outreach workers” had been a disaster.
Some of the leaders referred to the need to increase the numbers of gardaí.
But there was also a significant amount of debate around housing in the first hour of the show.
Mr Martin came under fire for supporting the Fine Gael-led government during the housing crisis.
Ms McDonald told him he “should have acted in the national interest” and not allowed the crisis to deepen.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said it was time to regain control of land and land prices and to stop developers deciding housing.
The debate also focused on party promises, with Mr Varadkar party’s election promises to reduce income taxes.
He said the money for tax cuts would be more than was planned for health.
But Ms McDonald criticised Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin, pointing out that the former had been behind the building of the most expensive hospital ever and that the latter had been responsible for crashing the economy.
The controversial issue of the pension age also came for discussion. RTÉ debate host Claire Byrne asked leaders how younger workers would end up paying for promises to reduce the pension age.
She also asked them what cuts would they make if corporation tax dropped significantly.
Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall called for an end to “auction politics” and what was being promised to voters.
The debate and clashes among the leaders will likely set the tone for the days ahead as the campaign heads towards its final full week before voters go to the polls on February 8.
Earlier: Housing a hot topic as McDonald fights off criticisms of Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has fought off criticisms of her party and its republican past, arguing that the Ard Chomhairle, which decides policy, is “no different to the GAA”.
During the opening of a special seven-way leaders debate on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live, she and other leaders clashed on coalition options and who should be in power after the general election.
Ms McDonald attacked Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, saying it was incredibly “arrogant and obnoxious” to say her party could be disregarded in any post election talks, especially as the two leaders shook the hands of Sinn Féin ministers when in the North.
Speaking as the debate started, RTÉ host Claire Byrne quizzed the leaders about coalition options and the fact there might be no party with a majority after the general election.
Ms McDonald said she would speak to everybody and that she wanted to deliver a Republican programme in government.
Mr Varadkar responded saying that it wasn’t “anything personal” why he would not work with Sinn Féin but based on policies.
He claimed Sinn Féin was “soft on crime” and “hard on taxes” and did not support the special criminal court.
“It is about the future,” he told the 300-strong audience.
Ms McDonald fired back that Fine Gael had cut garda numbers and closed garda stations and left the communities “wide open” to thugs
“The truth is that they don’t want to let an alternative in,” she said.
But Mr Martin weighed into the criticisms of Sinn Féin, arguing that his party was “under no obligation” at all to work with Sinn Féin.
He said the old Provos “hated” the special criminal court and that external unelected people from Sinn Féin’s Ard Chomhairle would dictate policy if Sinn Féin was in power.
Ms McDonald replied that the party’s Ard Chomhairle was “not a shadowy entity” and had elected officials and was “no different to the GAA”.
Mr Martin fired back that it was “fundamentally different.”
Labour leader Brendan Howlin said his party was open to working with others on the left to create a group of 20 to 25 TDs.
“The Labour party is the party of doers,” he said, ruling out nobody in post-election talks.
Social Democrats leader Roisin Shortall argued that “civil war politics” was coming to an end.
The leaders also debated housing, with Mr Varadkar claiming supply was important.
“I think it is a good social policy to help everybody buy their own home,” he said.
When asked by a member of the audience how the various parties will help someone own a home, Mr Varadkar said: “I want people to be able to afford their own home.
“The one thing I have learned from this campaign is the number of people paying very high rent who want to buy their own home but can’t raise a mortgage deposit.”
Mr Varadkar said he wants home ownership to be a possibility for everyone and it can be done by increasing supply.
He added: “The vast majority of people in Ireland want to buy their own home.”
Mr Martin said the level of house building in the past few years under the Fine Gael government has been “insufficient”.
Ms McDonald said the incoming government will have to declare a “housing emergency” and said the country needs 100,000 homes that would see a mix of social and affordable housing.
Mr Howlin said rents need to be frozen across the country as housing supply remains too low.
Social Democrats leader Roisin Shortall agreed rents should be frozen and said the government needs to build more houses on state-owned land.
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said there is a “stigma” surrounding social housing and there was an ideological aversion to building social housing on a large scale.
Mr Boyd Barrett said mortgage interest rates are double what they are in other EU countries and said Irish banks are taking advantage of people who want to buy their own home.
Green Leader Eamon Ryan said under the Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael approach, “you might as well give the cheque to the developer”.
Housing protestors earlier tonight gathered on the NUI Galway campus as party leaders arrived, criticising Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for standing by landlords.
Mr Boyd Barrett called for a grand coalition of the left to ensure Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil are not returned to power.
He said that people were crippled by housing, childcare costs and high insurance charges.
Data courtesy of The Irish Times
Earlier during the day, Fianna Fáil criticised Fine Gael for playing dirty in the campaign and engaging in Trump-style politics.
Mr Varadkar, while canvassing, fired back that Fianna Fáil were trying to avoid talking about their “Swiss-cheese manifesto” and policies.
The TV debate and blows landed by some leaders will likely set the tone for the week, as parties attempt to sway undecided voters.
Mr Varadkar will canvass in Galway City tomorrow while Sinn Féin will launch the party’s election manifesto in Dublin.
– additiaonl reporting by Press Association
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