SPEND ENOUGH TIME with Lucinda Creighton and Stephen Donnelly and you’ll find they and their relatively new parties actually have more in common than you might think.
Creighton is the leader of Renua Ireland, a party set up in March 2015, which advocates for a radical overhaul of the Irish tax system and the introduction of a flat 23% tax rate.
Renua is widely viewed as being right of the political spectrum.
Donnelly is one of three leaders of the Social Democrats, a party set up in July 2015, which advocates broadly for maintaining the status quo in taxation. For example, it is the only party advocating no changes to Universal Social Charge.
The SocDems are widely viewed as being on the left of the political spectrum.
So when we brought the two together for the second of our High Table Election Debates we anticipated a row.
But while there were some testy exchanges, we found that the two nascent political parties share quite a bit of common ground:
The best bits
1. “Economically irresponsible”
While there are several shared goals and visions, one area where these two definitely don’t agree is tax.
Renua’s flat tax proposal has already been the subject of considerable debate. It would see 17 different rates and thresholds scrapped in favour of one 23% rate on all income, no matter what a person earns.
“We believe that this will have a transformative effect on the economy and lift people out of poverty,” Creighton argued in her opening statement.
But Donnelly said it would involve shifting a significant burden of taxation onto lower and middle income earners.
Not so, said Creighton, who pointed out that low income workers would get a ‘graduated basic income’ to mitigate any losses in take home pay. For example, she said:
If you take somebody like a single mother, earning the minimum wage currently, they will be almost €300 better off by introducing a flat rate of income tax and that’s at the lower end of the scale.
Donnelly agrees that families need relief but said the focus should be not on eroding the tax base but by reducing the cost of living and focussing on areas like childcare.
It was when Creighton insisted that Renua’s proposal would not erode the tax base that things got a little bit heated:
2. Where are they on water?
Water remains an issue for many voters. Donnelly and Creighton both agree that Irish Water is a mess that needs to be sorted out, but differences arise on charges. Donnelly said:
We want to abolish water charges on the basis that the money collected doesn’t cover the cost of collecting the money.
Renua wants to keep charges and Creighton argued that any party pledging to scrap them is being “dishonest”.
I think it’s one of the most dishonest positions that I have seen from political parties in Ireland for quite some time, and I would include the Social Democrats in that.
Donnelly’s main argument for scrapping charges is that it’s currently costing the State €270 million for Irish Water to collect the €271 million from households. But the Wicklow TD has previously said his party is open to a conversation on charging in the future.
So do Renua and the SocDems actually agree on what to do about water?
3. Motor tax merit
Renua wants to abolish motor tax and replace it with a direct levy on fuel at source, adding 3 cent to the price of a litre of petrol and 4 cent to the price of a litre of diesel.
Creighton used Donnelly’s argument on the current inefficiency of collecting water charges to make the case:
Maybe the Social Democrats might consider the proposal from Renua to abolish motor tax because actually the cost of collecting motor tax amounts to about 40% of what is generated in motor tax revenue [and] 130,000 cars are not taxed. So they’re not caught by that charge at all. So, it’s a completely inefficient tax.
Donnelly said there is no SocDem position on motor tax but said there “is certainly merit” in the Renua proposal.
4. The Lowry Consensus
There’s also strong agreement on Michael Lowry, who’s in the news lately, in that neither party will do business with the controversial Tipperary TD.
In this video, Creighton and Donnelly each explained why and also outlined the circumstances in which they would go into government:
As for the others, the SocDems are open to post-election talks with everyone else, while Renua has categorically ruled out Sinn Féin.
5. Those red lines
Creighton insists that her party is not there “to prop anyone up” and will insist on its still-to-be-published red lines issues – policies and positions it will not compromise on – being part of any programme for government it hammers out.
Agreeing again with his supposed Renua rival, Donnelly echoed those sentiments, declaring: ”We are going to be coming up with red line issues.”
Although he couldn’t outline a single one, saying they would be published during the election campaign.
6. “I have no difficulty working with Stephen”
Between Irish Water (sort of), motor tax, Lowry, and red lines there seems to be an awful that these new kids on the block have in common.
You can add to that the issue of parliamentary reform, with Renua and the SocDems both committed to the principle of reforming and enhancing the Dáil’s power. Creighton summed up:
We are perhaps different to the traditional parties in the sense that we understand that it is actually a good thing to have common ground and to try to build bridges and achieve commons goals. I don’t believe in the adversarial position that we have currently [in Irish politics].
It was in that spirit that during the opportunity to question each other, Donnelly asked Creighton how do small parties break the cartel of the big ones:
7. But just how influential will they be?
At the end of the debate we asked each leader how many seats their party is going to win in the general election. Without missing a beat, Creighton said 10.
Donnelly sat on the fence and said anywhere between 0 and 14, which is the total number of SocDem candidates running in the election. He added that seven would be ideal in that it would give his party Dáil speaking rights.
But the choice is yours.
So, after watching the debate, who are you more likely to vote for?