Party leaders clash over tax cuts, housing and climate

The leaders of seven political parties contesting in the General Election tackled a number of topics in the latest debate, ranging from housing and health to climate change and a border poll.

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar began the debate on Virgin Media Television by defending his party’s spending plans.

He joined Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin; Sinn Féin leader Mary-Lou McDonald; Labour leader Brendan Howlin; Solidarity-People Before Profit’s Mick Barry; Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and Social Democrats’ co-leader Catherine Murphy in the debate.

In response to allegations that it is a dishonest election, Mr Varadkar said the economic projections all the parties have used are based on assumptions made by the Department of Finance.

He also said that if the economy is “hit”, then his party would have to look again at its tax and spending policies. 

Mr Martin defended his time in government, saying he had learned lessons.

“We have been responsible on budgets. We are the one party not opting to spend the total €11 billion,” he added.

“The real issue here is what are one’s priorities.” He said that his intention is to prioritise health and housing. 

Meanwhile, Mr Ryan said that tax cuts cannot be promised one side while public services that people want are delivered. 

“We need more teachers, more guards and more nurses. That will require us to have an income to do it,” he said. 

“I don’t think you can promise tax cuts on one side and there are several parties doing that.”

Mr Barry raised wealth tax and said: “If you went after the richest 5% and put 2% tax on their net wealth, that would raise just shy of €4 billion”.

Mr Howlin said: “It is as if we haven’t went through the last disastrous ten years. If we are determined to fix the health crisis and solve the housing crisis, we can’t at the same time give mass tax cuts.

“Parties are promising huge giveaways. It’s a con job.”

Ms Murphy criticised the local property tax and said that there is a huge unfairness in how it is structured.

“Our approach is we need to put money back into people’s pockets by people being able to rely on public services,” she added.

Ms McDonald said there has been a “narrative of economic recovery”, but that “ordinary people are asking, ‘how come I am not experiencing it?’ They need a break”.

“Across the State, families and workers are struggling,” she argued.

“At the same time, the banks those same people bailed out are not paying a cent on profits of €2.4 billion.”

Read: Plenty of hot air but no new wisdom in latest debate


All candidates raised their hands when asked who owned a home. When asked who among them were landlords, no hands were raised.

Mr Varadkar said that landlords were needed in Ireland.

“Landlords are just people who have worked hard and have bought an investment property,” he said.

The Fianna Fáil leader said that he was in favour of rent controls, and that more affordable homes and council houses were needed.

“There are too many out there who cannot afford to buy their own home,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Howlin said that the biggest cause of homelessness was rising rents. “We put a rent freeze in place in 2014. We have robust rent already,” he said.

When challenged on Sinn Féin’s housing policy after they pledged to build 100,000 homes, Ms McDonald said that the houses can be built. She also said that rents need to be cut.

She said: “We need to cut rents by way of a tax relief. We need more capacity and we need a rent freeze. Micheál Martin’s alibi on this rent freeze is astonishing”

Ms Murphy added: “There is a whole generation locked out of the choices that we had and that is being able to live independently or afford their own home.”

Mr Varadkar said that Fine Gael’s Rebuilding Ireland scheme has doubled the number of homes supplied in the last few years.

“That will bring down rents,” he added. “We have seen in the last couple of days a significant fall in the number of people homeless, but there are still too many.”


In relation to health, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said that Ireland needed to head towards a universal healthcare system, “where we won’t have to spend so much money on health insurance”.

Mr Varadkar said: “We all have the same policy on healthcare but it has to be funded.

“To implement Sláintecare it will cost €5bn over the next five years, we have provided for that in our plans, Labour hasn’t and the Greens haven’t.”

Mr Barry criticised the mental health service in Ireland, and said that it has gone unmentioned.

“The mothers I have met on doorsteps, who have been shaking with anger at the treatment of their children who are in need of mental health services and forced to wait for months and sometimes years,” he added.

Mr Martin said that his party will increase and expand the national treatment purchase scheme.

Ms McDonald described the health system as “dysfunctional”. “A lot of money is going into health, however we need more beds and staff,” she added.

Irish unity and RIC commemoration

The candidates were also asked about Irish unity and an event that was planned to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). 

Social Democrats’ Catherine Murphy said she believed that Brexit has brought a united Ireland much closer, and that it was “self-evident”. “We have to plan for that,” she added.

Mr Barry said that he was for the unity of working class people no matter where they are from. 

Asked what year is a reasonable timeframe to hold a border poll, Mr Howlin said: “I wouldn’t put a year on it”.

Meanwhile the Fianna Fáil leader said that all his life, his philosophy was “uniting Protestant and Catholics, it’s not about victory over one side or the other”.

Ms McDonald said Ireland should have a border poll in the next five years.

Mr Varadkar replied: “We should have it at the point where I think it would be successful and will pass.

“The idea should never be dismissed, but if it doesn’t pass it will be divisive and will create division.”

When asked if the government messed up over a planned event commemorating the RIC, Mr Varadkar admitted that it did. 

The event was deferred by the government following widespread criticism by the public and politicians.

Mr Martin added: “The greatest barrier to Irish unity has been Sinn Féin. They have damaged the prospect of a united Ireland more than any other party.”

Ms McDonald responded: “There is nobody in the North who need a homily from Micheál Martin on the Troubles and the suffering people endured.

“For a leader of Fianna Fáil it’s always the jibes and put downs from the side when it comes to the North.”

On the issue of climate change, Mr Ryan said the scale of the crisis was ”beyond compare” and claimed “this decade is critical and we have to start on the right path”. 

Next government

Turning to the formation of the next government, Solidarity-People Before Profit’s Mick Barry said that people want a change. 

Mr Howlin said that he wants to build a bloc of progressive TDs after the general election. 

Ms McDonald said the “very best” outcome would be a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. 

Mr Varadkar ruled out entering into government with Sinn Féin not because of their past, but because of their future. 

He said: “We would be willing to work with Fianna Fáil in a particular circumstance.

“We are heading into the next phase of Brexit, and as a last resort, rather than have a second election during those talks, we would be willing to cooperate with Fianna Fáil.”

Mr Martin said that people want a change in government.

The final televised debate of the campaign will take place on 4 February on RTÉ One. 

Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin will go head- to-head in the Prime Time Debate, moderated by Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullough. 

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