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And they’re off… The issues and the points-scoring of the first leaders’ debate

Last night’s TV3 debate between Eamon Gilmore and Micheal Martin was relatively restrained… and so was Vincent Browne.

Micheal Martin and Eamon Gilmore arriving at TV3
Micheal Martin and Eamon Gilmore arriving at TV3
Image: PA Images/Julien Behal

WAS THAT A twinkle in Vincent Browne’s eye when he opened the TV3 leaders’ debate last night?

Browne noted that as moderator of the debate between Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin and Labour’s Eamon Gilmore, his role was “not to criticise or comment on the leaders’ answers”. Lots were drawn for seating placements (Gilmore ended up on Browne’s right) – and, no, there was no empty seat in view, ‘symbolic’ or otherwise.

After Martin told the assembled press that he was feeling relaxed and in good form and Gilmore’s press man said he was doing press-ups in preparation (we think he was joking), the debate kicked off at 8pm.

Both leaders made one-minute opening statements. Micheal Martin said that it could not be “politics as usual” because of the seriousness of the problems Ireland faced. Eamon Gilmore said we were a good country that had suffered under “a lousy government”.

The catchwords of the night? “Chopping and changing”; “phoney”; “thousands of million” (instead of just saying “billions” – more impact, you see); “public anger”; “reform”. Oh and, “Eamon, Eamon, Eamon, Eamon…” (that was Vincent Browne’s).

Topic #1: The national deficit.

Micheal Martin: “We believe in cutting public expenditure… and we can’t tax our way out of a recession and we can’t borrow more money”. He agrees with 2014 deadline for deficit reduction to 3 per cent of GDP. Martin says Fianna Fail has done the “heavy lifting” to get the economy back on track.

Eamon Gilmore: “To get down the deficit we have to grow the economy – it’s about creating jobs and raising revenues”. He says Labour will get the deficit to under 5 per cent by 2014, to 3 per cent by 2016. Labour “will not increase” income tax on earnings under €100,000.

The sticking points: Martin accuses Labour of “chopping and changing” and that they agreed to the 2014 deadline two months ago. Gilmore says Fianna Fail are the one who are moving the goalposts, changing the targets for spending cuts. Martin calls Gilmore “desperate” to change his stance in order to stay popular. Then he brings out the heavy guns: “Your decision on delaying the deficit deadline is reminiscent of the 1980s” in that it would “delay recovery”.

Topic #2: The EU/IMF bailout deal.

Gilmore: The bailout is bad for Ireland and the bondholders need to carry some of the burden. The interest rate on us is “penal” and the austerity imposed “will halt job creation”.

Martin: The bailout is essential to allow the State to continue to function.

The sticking points: Gilmore brings the New York Times into the debate (not a physical copy of the paper, mind). He says even the NY Times says the bailout terms are too austere. He says it’s “Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way”. Martin says he doesn’t need lectures from Gilmore about standing up for his country. Then there is a bit of bickering over whether intelligence is the preserve of Fianna Fail.

On reducing the interest rate – Martin says there will be one, but for everybody and not just Ireland. Gilmore accuses him of “changing party tack” by saying the rate can be reduced after all.

Topic #3: Should we disown the €50bn bank debt?

Martin: We need the banks to pay the wages of the 1.8m people working in this economy. We must “keep our head and hold our nerve”.

Gilmore: Agrees that we can’t disown because there was a blanket guarantee – and that guarantee was “the worst decision” he’d ever seen in his time in politics.

The sticking points: Martin rounds squarely on Gilmore saying that he knows “in my heart and soul” that if Labour had been in power, they too would have guaranteed the banks. Gilmore says they didn’t know what advice was given in September 2008 because the government had set up a “phoney investigation”. He said that Fianna Fail had misled the taxpayer and told them it would cost nothing. Martin says: “Every decision taken was a bona fide decision”. Gilmore uses the phrase “thousands of million”, rather than billions, for impact.

DURING THE AD BREAK: The Labour press officer says that the €5bn being quoted by Fianna Fail is “their figure for the deal” and doesn’t add up for Labour. The Fianna Fail press officer says Gilmore had expected Martin to “lie down” on the topic of banking and he hadn’t.

Topic #4: How to create jobs.

Martin: We must invest in education and training, and reckons there could be 150,000 new jobs in the pharmaceutical and IT sectors if they were prioritised.

Gilmore: Believes that there would a consumer confidence boost from a new government and that there would be work in construction on new schools.

The sticking points: Martin claims that the real jobs are coming from “innovative economy” sectors; Labour is looking at cutting commercial rents and uses the “innovation” tag too.

Topic #5: How do you solve a problem like the health system?

Martin: As he has in recent days, Martin speaks about “reform” he was instrumental in bringing to the health sector. He says Ireland has positively changed the treatment of cancer and heart disease.

Gilmore: “What we are proposing is a new way to organise our health system”, based on the idea of universal health insurance. Primary care should be prioritised – people need to be able to visit their GP without worrying about the fee.

The sticking points: Martin hits back saying that he had helped set up GP co-ops but that Fine Gael and Labour were proposing what is essentially the “privatisation” of the health system. Gilmore accuses Martin of commissioning 140 reports on health – but that it’s now time to reform the health system. Martin is proud of the HSE – Gilmore is unequivocal: “The HSE has been a disaster”.

Topic #6: An end to the two-tier education system (where fee-paying schools are subsidised)?

Gilmore: Private schools should come back into the public sector – but it will cost us.

Martin: He feels he has already widened the education system, saying he oversaw the expansion of the number of third-level places.

The sticking points: Labour is committed to tackle Ireland’s “huge literacy problem”. Martin says: “The vast majority of Irish children can read and write”.

Topic #7: Ministerial pensions…

Martin: He says he could have benefited had he decided to retire, but he hasn’t. He points out that Gilmore and Enda Kenny are among those who have benefitted from severance payments.

Gilmore: Labour want ministerial pension cuts to be in line with ministerial pay cuts.

The sticking points: While Martin says that Fianna Fail is up for discussing the payments and how they might change, Gilmore says it shouldn’t be up to politicians at all. He says an independent body should decide political renumeration from now on because public anger demands it.

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