IF YOU BELIEVE Micheál Martin then the choice facing voters in this election is whether they want a government led by Fianna Fáil or by Fine Gael.
To some it is extraordinary that, five years after losing 50 Dáil seats, Fianna Fáil is back in contention for government. But can the party be trusted to run the economy and the country again?
Its Dublin Bay South candidate Jim O’Callaghan believes so, arguing that Fianna Fáil will offer a fairer recovery than what Fine Gael and Labour has so far delivered.
But over in the blue corner, Noel Rock, a first-time Fine Gael candidate in Dublin North-West, believes a party led by a minister in the last Fianna Fáil government can’t be trusted not to wreck the country again.
So, with that in mind, we decided to get them together to thrash out the issues.
Who can we trust? Who’s offering the best government for the next five years? And, of course, why can’t the two parties just settle their differences and coalesce?
It was a lively and informative debate:
The best bits
1. Low taxes or better services?
O’Callaghan’s party has placed a priority on improving services. He told us: “If you vote for Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin you’re going to get something different.
You’re going to get a government that prioritises fairness. Fianna Fáil has as strong tradition of looking after the people who need the support of the State.
Fine Gael wants to improve public services too, but Rock argued that the best way of doing this is growing the economy by cutting tax.
He said: “We have clearly said: ‘Yes, we want to abolish USC, absolutely’.
People are paying this emergency tax, now the emergency is coming to an end we can abolish this, but also improve services at the same time. We need to be able to improve services and for me that’s a priority first of all.
But O’Callaghan took issue with this, arguing that the coalition’s priority for the last five years, like that of all governments, should have been on improving society:
2. The ‘spin’ of USC
Abolishing Universal Social Charge is a core Fine Gael election message. But is it just spin when the party also proposes a claw back measure that would tax people earning over €100,000 at 5%?
O’Callaghan believes so, saying: “Every time you listen to [junior finance minister] Simon Harris he uses the same adjective to describe the USC, he calls it ‘the hated USC’.
So obviously the spin doctors in Fine Gael have realised that USC is unpopular with [their] core group [and said] we’re going to abolish it. That shouldn’t be happening.
Rock argued that Fianna Fáil’s proposal to abolish USC on earnings up to €80,000 is mere “semantics” and actually similar to Fine Gael’s position.
This sparked one of the most heated exchanges of the debate:
3. Enda or Micheál?
O’Callaghan believes that Micheál Martin is “probably the most popular leader in this country”. By contrast, he argued, Enda Kenny has been exposed in this election as a weak leader.
“It has reminded the Irish public of his weaknesses as a politician, whether it be in debate, whether it be in evasiveness or whether it be in indecision,” O’Callaghan said.
Rock, as you’d expect, doesn’t see it that way:
4. Who’s to blame for crime?
The two violent shootings in the north inner city this month have brought the issue of crime to the forefront of the election campaign.
Rock claimed that a lot of the current crime issues are a result of Fianna Fáil closing Templemore. Understandably, O’Callaghan took a different view.
This led to another heated exchange:
5. What recovery?
One of the most animated exchanges between the two first-timers was sparked by the issue of recovery. This week, a Newstalk/Red C poll found that the majority of people in Ireland don’t feel the recovery.
We put it to both candidates that talk of a ‘fairer recovery’ in Fianna Fáil’s case, and ‘keeping the recovery going’ in Fine Gael’s case is moot:
6. A prisoner of the polls
Of course, the elephant in the room is why don’t Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil just get it over with and go in with each other?
The current opinion polls point to the only workable Dáil majority after next week being a historic coalition between the two parties divided by the Civil War.
But both O’Callaghan and Rock strenuously argued against this point and both reckoned they have some “shy voters” out there:
Despite their differences, O’Callaghan and Rock also both agree that a grand coalition is not a good idea and not necessarily what the people want.
We’ve just over a week until we find out for certain what the people want.
Check out our other High Table Election Debates:
Gannon vs. Nolan: These two lads had a red-hot row about social democracy
Ryan vs. McCarthy: These two lads had a mighty row about the trauma of government
Lucinda vs. Donnelly: These two may sound like one, but they insist they’re not the same
McGrath vs. McGrath: These lads had a lively (and hilarious) row in our office