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FactCheck: The truth and the lies from last night's Leaders' Debate

TheJournal.ie’s GE16 FactCheck went into overdrive last night, testing the level of truth and lies in last night’s battle.

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AS PART OF our GE16 FactCheck series, we’re testing the truth of claims made by candidates and parties on the campaign trail.

If you hear something that doesn’t sound quite right, or see a claim that looks great, but you want to confirm it, email factcheck@thejournal.ie.

Last night was the first time we had all four leaders of the main parties in the same room, and predictably, there was a raft of claims, counter-claims and accusations.

We’ve rated an extensive selection of them, and separated out the truth, lies, and damn lies.

90408294 Source: RollingNews.ie

ECONOMY & MIGRATION

CLAIM: Unemployment is down to 8.6% – Joan Burton
Verdict: TRUE. The CSO’s seasonally adjusted monthly unemployment rate was 8.6% in January 2016. This is the lowest it has been since December 2008.

CLAIM: Enda Kenny said he wants Ireland’s personal tax rates to be the same as the United States – Micheál Martin.
Verdict: Half-true, but relies on one interpretation of a statement.

What was said:

MM: Enda, what did you say before Christmas? You said you wanted Ireland’s personal tax rates to be the same as the United States.”
EK: Where did I say that?

Martin then read the following quote, which Kenny offered to reporters on 20 December:

One of the things we have to reach out to is to make personal tax rates competitive with Britain, and with Australia, and with Canada, and with the US.

It might be fair to assume this would entail bringing our rates closer to those of the four countries, but Martin’s interpretation of it as meaning Kenny wants to make our personal tax rates the same as just one of those countries, is merely one possible interpretation.

CLAIM: Youth emigration was 250,000 under Fianna Fáil – Enda Kenny
Verdict: Partly TRUE, but it depends on which Fianna Fáil term he meant, and leaves out the fact that Fianna Fáil oversaw significant net inward migration.

What was said: 

Referring to Micheál Martin, Kenny stated: “This man’s party drove 250,000 young people out of the country.”

The facts:

youthmigration Source: CSO.ie

According to the CSO, from 1997-2010 (Fianna Fáil’s two terms), 276,800 people aged 15-24 emigrated. Kenny’s claim is TRUE if it refers to this period of time.

From 2007-2010 (their last term), the figure was 90,600. Kenny’s claim is FALSE if it refers to this period of time.

However, between 1997 and 2010, 75,800 more young people came to Ireland than left. The same figure for 2007-2010 was 75,300. So while it’s true Fianna Fáil oversaw significant youth emigration, there was significant net inward migration.

By contrast, 169,000 people aged 15-24 left Ireland between 2011 and 2015. Some 72,700 arrived, meaning the Fine Gael/Labour government has overseen net outward migration to the tune of 96,300.

HEALTH

00132766 Róisín Shortall Source: RollingNews.ie

Claim: Labour broke pledges to get rid of the HSE, bring in Universal Health Insurance, free prescriptions, protect child benefit and disability allowance – Gerry Adams
Verdict: 4.5/5 TRUE

  • HSE: False. Labour explicitly said they would not get rid of the HSE, but rather restructure it. From their 2011 manifesto:
Labour’s plan does not abolish the HSE outright. Instead, Labour’s plan transforms what we have already, so that the functions of the HSE are split between purchasing hospital care on the one hand, and a continuation of its management of mental health, community care and social care on the other.
Labour in government will introduce Universal Health Insurance.
  • Prescription charges: TRUE. Labour promised to reverse Fianna Fáil’s introduction of prescription charges for those on medical cards. That did not come to pass.

From their 2010 commitment:

Medical card holders qualified for free drugs until this Government introduced a 50 cent per item prescription charge in 2010. Labour in Government will remove this charge.
  • Child benefit: TRUE. In 2011, Labour promised to protect child benefit rates. However, in that year’s budget, payment rates were standardised, and in the 2013 Budget, child benefit was cut by €10.

Joan Burton retorted tonight that child benefit had been increased in the last two Budgets. That is also true.

  • Disability Allowance: Half-true. This was cut in the government’s first Budget in 2011, but famously reversed after a huge public outcry.

90408311 Source: RollingNews.ie

CLAIM: The HSE Director said 2016 will be the worst year in a decade for the health service – Micheál Martin
Verdict: TRUE

What was said:

Martin stated during tonight’s debate:

The HSE Director has said that 2016 will be the worst year in a decade for the health service, and that you under-provided it by €150 million.

Enda Kenny interjected to say “Not so,” and Joan Burton claimed “That is not true.”

It is, however, true.

The facts

According to documents released under FOI to the Irish Examiner, and reported on 6 February, HSE Director Tony O’Brien wrote to the Secretary General of the Department of Health James Breslin on 17 November 2015, saying that rising public expectations…

…will make 2016 the most difficult year the health service has faced over the last 10 years.

This was in light of what O’Brien regarded as a €150 million shortfall in the HSE’s allocation in Budget 2016.

CLAIM: Micheál Martin removed free GP care for the over-70s – Colette Fitzpatrick
Verdict: FALSE. The only mistake of the night from either chair of the debate.

What was said:

CF: You weren’t there recently when Fianna Fáil unveiled its own health policy. Were you afraid of facing tricky questions about your own record in the Department of Health?
MM: I beg your pardon…Go back on my performance in health…
CF: You took away free GP care for the over-70s.
MM: I didn’t, actually. I was the minister who brought in free medical cards for the over-70s. I brought in that move…
CF: And you took it away.

Martin has this one right. He was Minister for Health in 2002, when the government introduced an automatic entitlement to free GP care for anyone over the age of 70.

The scheme was ended in 2008, by which time Mary Harney had taken over as minister.

CLAIM: Labour sacked Róisín Shortall – Micheál Martin
Verdict: FALSE – no evidence to support this claim.

What was said:

After Joan Burton mentioned primary care centres, the Fianna Fáil leader interjected:

You guys sacked Róisín Shortall because of her commitment to primary care centres in disadvantaged areas. You left her hang out to dry.

Burton responded: “Róisín Shortall left the Labour party.”

We’re open to correction on this one, if Martin or Fianna Fáil can offer proof, but there is no evidence available to support the claim that Shortall was fired from her position as Junior Minister for primary health care.

She resigned on 26 September 2012, after a long-running conflict with then Health Minister James Reilly over the provision and location of primary care centres around the country. She resigned the Labour whip the same day.

CLAIM: There are more GPs with HSE contracts than ever before – Enda Kenny
Verdict: Almost entirely TRUE.

What was said:

We have more GPs with contracts with the HSE than ever before, and more GPs in the country.

According to the HSE’s yearly statistical analysis of the Primary Care Reimbursement Scheme, there were 2,870 GPs with contracts in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available.

While this is not the highest number ever (2,888 in 2013), there has been a steady increase in numbers since 2005, when 2,257 were signed up.

There’s no official register of GPs in Ireland, beyond those contracted with the PCRS, so we can only presume Kenny’s claim of “more GPs in the country” was just a reiteration of the first part of his claim.

CRIME & GARDA RESOURCES

Dublin shootings Source: Niall Carson/PA

CLAIM: More than 1,100 Gardaí have been recruited since Templemore reopened in 2014 – Joan Burton
Verdict: FALSE, but she may have misspoken.

What was said:

So far, since we reopened [Templemore] towards the end of 2014, we now have over 1,100 new Gardaí and currently we have 500 additional Gardaí in training…

The facts

In answer to a parliamentary question earlier this month, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald stated that, since the re-opening of Templemore Garda training college in 2014, 550 new Garda trainees had been recruited

She added that 296 of those 550 recruits were now stationed throughout the country.

Last year’s budget provided for the additional recruitment of 600 trainees by the end of 2016, but that recruitment has not actually taken place.

So the Labour leader’s claim that “we now have over 1,100 new Gardaí” really ought to be “We now have 296 new Gardaí, 254 recruits in training, and an additional 600 expected to enter training by the beginning of 2017.”

The second part of the claim – “we have 500 additional Gardaí in training” – is therefore also false.

CLAIM: The last two governments got rid of 3,500 Garda positions – Gerry Adams
Verdict: Half-true – most departures were retirements, and ignores parallel recruitment of new Gardaí.

What was said: “This government and the previous one got rid of 3,500 Garda positions.”

The facts:

gardastrength Source: Oireachtas.ie

The governments didn’t “get rid” of the positions, but from 2007-2015, there were a total of 3,577 departures from An Garda Síochána, most of which came from voluntary retirement.

So Adams is correct in stating the combined number of Gardaí who left the force during the tenures of the last Fianna Fáil-led government, and the outgoing Fine Gael/Labour one.

However, this obviously doesn’t take into account recruitment.

During Fianna Fáil’s time in government from 1997 to 2011, there was a net gain of 2,926 in Garda strength. During the tenure of Fine Gael and Labour since 2011, there has been a net loss of 1,078.

CLAIM: The government has closed 140 Garda stations – Gerry Adams
Verdict: Almost entirely TRUE. The actual number is 139.

What was said: “They closed 140 Garda stations.”

The facts:

39 Garda stations were closed in 2012, and 100 closed in 2013. For a list of 37 of the 39 closed in 2012, click here. For a list of the 100 stations closed in 2013, click here.

90408313 Source: RollingNews.ie

CLAIM: Gerry Adams said juries could go into witness protection – Joan Burton
Verdict: FALSE, but Adams wasn’t entirely clear on what he was proposing.

What was said:

While discussing the Special Criminal Court last night, the Tánaiste stated:

I don’t know what planet Gerry is living in on this. He suggested that juries could actually go into a witness protection programme.

Adams rejected the claim, saying “This is fairytales by Joan Burton.”

The facts:

A disclaimer: We weren’t present at Sunday’s press conference, where Adams made the disputed statements, and haven’t heard a full, unedited recording of it.

However, an excerpted Irish Independent transcript does not show Adams ever explicitly calling for witness protection for juries, and does show him demurring when that specific proposition was put to him.

Here’s a selection from the exchange last Sunday.

Q: How exactly would you protect witnesses and juries?
GA: In Britain, across Europe and in the US they have witness protection programmes and they deal with criminality and they bring those that are accused and they are subject to due process.
Q: So would you put juries into a sort of witness protection programme?
GA: There are measures which can be used to deal with all of that …
Q: You said you’d send jurors into witness protection?
GA: I said other administrations deal with this issue and deal with criminality of this kind without resource to Special Criminal Courts.

HOUSING & HOMELESSNESS

90406951 Source: RollingNews.ie

CLAIM: Only 28 local authority houses were built last year, and there are 100,000 people on the housing waiting list – Gerry Adams.
Verdict: Mostly TRUE

What was said:

There were 28 local authority houses built last year. 100,000 people on the housing list…

The facts:

28 is the number built in the first nine months of the year. We don’t yet have the final figure for 2015.

socialhousingcompletions2015 Source: Dept of Environment

For more details, check out this article.

On the 100,000 figure: It’s not clear what point in time Adams was referring to, but the most recent comprehensive tally, by RTE Prime Time, showed a total of 139,359 people on housing waiting lists, at the end of January.

CLAIM: The government made 2,500 vacant houses available for social housing last year – Joan Burton
Verdict: TRUE, but actually slightly understates the figure.

What was said:

…People often see, in cities in towns and Ireland, boarded-up local authority properties and apartments and houses. In 2015, we opened up 2,500 of those, and they’re now occupied by families and individuals.

The facts:

The actual number of vacant properties provided for social housing last year was 2,696.

However, the Tánaiste’s claim that all those houses are now occupied does not have a verifiable factual basis. For more details, check out this article.

CLAIM: The government is investing €3.8 billion in social housing – Joan Burton
Verdict: TRUE

What was said: 

This government and the Labour party have put together the largest housing investment package that this country has ever seen – €3.8 billion.

The facts:

As part of its Social Housing Strategy, published in November 2014, the government set out to build, acquire, or lease 35,573 social housing units between 2015 and 2020.

The estimated cost would be €3.8 billion, the equivalent of €633 million per year.

90408282 Source: RollingNews.ie

CLAIM: Fianna Fáil ended the tradition of local authority social housing – Joan Burton
Verdict: Very, very FALSE.

What was said:

The biggest housing crisis has its roots in the decision by Fianna Fáil, by accident or design, I’m not sure which, to actually end the tradition of local authorities building houses. And basically that died, and now we have to recreate that.

Martin called the claim “completely untrue” and “incredible.”

MM: Between 2007 and 2010, the Fianna Fáil-led government built 14,000 social houses – actual social houses. In the last five years, Fine Gael and Labour built just over 1,000. It’s incredible for you to tell an untruth there, that said we ended social housing.
JB: You did end social housing.
MM: We didn’t. We built 14,000.

The facts:

ALLsocialhousing Source: Dept of Environment

Martin actually understates the number of social housing units built by both governments, by restricting his statement to only local authority housing, but the thrust of what he said is right.

From 2007-2010, 14,035 local authority and 6,345 voluntary and co-operative houses were built. A total of 20,380.

From 2011 until September 2015, 1,328 local authority and 2,184 voluntary + co-operative houses were built. A total of 3,512.

Social housing construction was slowing by the end of the last Fianna Fáil-led government, but still exceeded the current government’s construction rate, by a multiple of almost six.

The number of local authority houses built in their last year in power, 2010, was 1,328.

By coincidence, that’s the exact same number of local authority houses built during Fine Gael and Labour’s entire term in office, from 2011-2015.

So the Labour leader’s claim that social housing construction died under Fianna Fáil, and that the current government were “recreating it” is massively wide of the mark.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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