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FactCheck: The truth and the lies from the final Leaders' Debate

TheJournal.ie’s GE16 FactCheck has pulled out all the stops for the last-chance, high-stakes battle at RTE last night.

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Updated: 3.38 pm

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.

Tonight was the big one – the final Leaders’ Debate, hosted by RTE’s Prime Time, with just two days to go until the election.

Here’s a comprehensive rating of all the truth and lies from the final, high-stakes battle.

primetimedebate Source: RTE

CLAIM: Almost 1,000 people take their own lives on the island of Ireland each year – Gerry Adams
Verdict: Mostly TRUE

First, a correction. In the liveblog last night, we incorrectly rated this claim as FALSE. Without the benefit of a replay, we misheard Adams’ claim as 5,000 suicides per year in the Republic of Ireland.

These things can happen in the context of a live event, and we’re happy to correct the record at the outset of this article.

What was said:

There are almost 1,000 people every year recorded as taking their lives through suicide across this island.

The facts:

According to the CSO, there were on average 505 suicides a year in the Republic of Ireland, from 2007-2014.

According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), there were on average 279 suicides a year in the North, during the same period.

That’s a total of 784 on average, throughout the island of Ireland. So the Sinn Féin leader’s claim is Mostly TRUE.

Housing & Homelessness

90406950 Source: RollingNews.ie

CLAIM: 1,000 social housing units were built by local authorities last year – Joan Burton.
Verdict: Very, very FALSE.

What was said:

Confusion was rife during this section of the debate, so let’s clear a few things up. Miriam O’Callaghan and Joan Burton had this exchange:

MOC: Last year, your government built just 28 local authority social and affordable houses. Isn’t that a damning statistic?
JB: Well I think your statistic is not quite correct, it doesn’t show the full picture, because if you look at how many families and individuals got social houses through the local authority, there was actual over 4,000 social houses given out via local authorities.

Now, 1,000 of those were new builds. I don’t know where you got your figure from…

The facts:

socialhousingcompletions2015 Source: Dept of the Environment

O’Callaghan correctly insisted that the figure of 28 came from the Department of the Environment’s own statistics, but data is only available for the first nine months of the year, and 28 is the number built by local authorities alone.

Including voluntary and cooperative housing, there were 246 units built up until September.

So Burton’s claim about 1,000 new local authority houses is FALSE by a very large margin.

Burton also stated that before Christmas, 22 social housing units were built in her constituency, and another 22 were built “in the first couple of months of this year.”

Assuming this is correct, the 22 built before Christmas would not show up in the official statistics yet, because they don’t cover the fourth quarter of 2015.

The 22 built since January would obviously not factor in the numbers for 2015, so this is something of a moot point.

O’Callaghan then claimed that social housing construction “ground to a halt” under Fianna Fáil. There’s no precise definition of “grinding to a halt,” of course, but this seems a slightly unfair description.

ALLsocialhousing

Between 2008 and 2010, as mentioned by O’Callaghan, local authority social housing construction did fall by 73%, from 4,905 to 1,328.

Including voluntary and co-operative housing, the decrease was 69% – from 6,801 to 2,081.

But in absolute terms, Fianna Fáil’s last period in government (2007-2010) saw almost six times more social housing construction than that of Fine Gael and Labour (2011-2015), namely 20,380 as opposed to 3,512.

Indeed, as we have noted before, local authorities built 1,328 social houses in 2010, Fianna Fáil’s last year in government. That’s the same number that has been built throughout Fine Gael and Labour’s entire tenure.

For full details on this issue, check out this article.

CLAIM: 2,300 ghost estates have been opened up since 2011 – Joan Burton
Verdict: Almost entirely TRUE

What was said:

When we came into government there were thousands of ghost estates, and we have actually refinished and opened up 2,300 ghost estates…

The facts:

ghostestates Source: Housing Agency

According to the Housing Agency’s December report, the number of unfinished housing developments going into 2011 was 2,876, and the number going into this year was 668.

That’s a reduction of 2,208 – just short of the 2,300 claimed by the Tánaiste.

CLAIM: 1,000 families left homelessness last year – Joan Burton
Verdict: Very likely FALSE

What was said:

Last year, Miriam, and I’m happy to say this in one way, 1,000 families left being homeless…

We had thought this might have been a misstatement, conflating “families” and individuals. However, the Labour leader followed up later on in the debate, specifying:

…Last year, 1,000 families left being homeless, that was almost 2,000 people.

The facts:

The Department of the Environment’s Social Housing Report for 2015 found that 2,000 people had left homelessness last year.

There is no breakdown of how many of those were families, and 1,000 probably overstates the case quite significantly.

Since a family contains more than one person, the figure would, by definition, have to be at the very least 2,000 people for the claim of 1,000 families to be accurate.

We know that the average number of persons in a family in emergency accommodation, for example, is 3.45, so the likely maximum number of families in that figure of 2,000 would be 580.

And since single adults would also have been among those moving out of homelessness, the number of families would be even lower than 580, which makes Burton’s claim very likely to be FALSE.

CLAIM: In 2015, 13,000 families were provided with social housing – Joan Burton
Verdict: Half-TRUE, she may have misspoken.

What was said:

Last year, we housed 13,000 families, the majority of them through social renting.

The facts:

The Tánaiste appears to be using “families” liberally again, here.

In 2015, according to the department’s social housing output report, 13,141 tenancies were agreed.

Again, no breakdown of families or individuals is offered, but it is safe to assume there were at least some single adults placed in social housing rental, meaning Burton’s claim can only really be regarded as Half-TRUE.

Economy & Tax

CLAIM: Gerry Adams appeared to think someone earning more than €100,000 would pay only 7% in tax under Sinn Féin’s plan – Miriam O’Callaghan
Verdict: TRUE, but he may have misspoken.

The Sinn Féin leader firmly disputed this one, so let’s examine it.

What was said last night:

MOC: Gerry, I heard you talking to Sean O’Rourke on the radio the other day and you seemed genuinely confused, and thought that someone earning €100,000 paid a tax rate of 7%.
GA: No I didn’t say that. You listen back…I’m very very clear that we are going to introduce a new rate of tax individually, for those citizens who earn over €100,000, and we will add seven cents on every euro extra that they earn.

The facts:

You can listen to Adams’ interview on RTE Radio One’s Today programme here.

Here’s an excerpted transcript of the relevant section, which starts at 11:25.

GA: I am conceding the point that an individual earning over €100,000 will pay no more than 7 cents in the euro, for every euro earned. He only starts to get taxed above €100,000…
SOR: No sorry, you seem to be suggesting that every cent, or every euro you earn above €100,000 will only be taxed at seven cent in the euro. That is not the case.
GA: That is the case, Seán. That is the case, that has been carefully worked out with us, because we want to be fair in all of this.

As you can see, Adams did indeed stipulate that the individual earning more than €100,000 “only starts to get taxed above €100,000,” and that they would only be taxed at 7% above this margin, under Sinn Féin’s plan.

Both of those claims are false.

The “seven” that keeps recurring here relates to Sinn Féin’s plan to increase the top rate of tax by 7%, from 52% to 59%.

Adams’ claim tonight that the party would add “seven cents on every euro extra that they earn” is accurate. But this is not what he asserted in conversation with Seán O’Rourke, and so Miriam O’Callaghan’s claim was TRUE.

Adams may have misspoken, but was given an opportunity to correct his assertions, when challenged by O’Rourke, and refused, insisting “That is the case.”

CLAIM: Sinn Féin introduced a bill to abolish the USC – Miriam O’ Callaghan
Verdict: TRUE

What was said:

In the first of O’Callaghan’s two claims on shifting stances towards USC, she told the Taoiseach:

In December 2014, your Finance Minister Michael Noonan said that the USC was never intended to be a temporary tax, that it was a necessary measure to widen the tax base, and that it plays a vital part in meeting the many expenditure demands on the exchequer.
And now you’re planning to abolish it.

The facts:

On 16 December 2014, Noonan wrote, in response to a PQ from Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin:

noonanUSC Source: Oireachtas.ie

CLAIM: Sinn Féin introduced a bill to abolish the USC – Miriam O’Callaghan
Verdict: TRUE

What was said: 

O’Callaghan addressed this one to Gerry Adams:

On March the 29th 2011, your party – through a private member’s bill, sought the abolition of the USC. Your finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty described it as little more than a tax on the working poor and a grossly unfair tax.

The facts:

On 29 March 2011, Doherty did indeed introduce a private member’s motion to “abolish the Universal Social Charge.”

He said it was “little more than a working poor tax,” and called it “unjust” and “regressive in the extreme,” although he didn’t refer to it as “grossly unfair” in that particular debate.

You can read his remarks in full here.

Health

90405102 Source: RollingNews.ie

CLAIM: Today’s trolley count is the highest on record – Micheál Martin
Verdict: FALSE, but he was probably not speaking literally

What was said:

…the trolley count today is the highest on record…

Gerry Adams was more specific, adding later in the discussion on health:

Let me remind you that today, 511 citizens were on hospital trolleys.

The facts:

According to the INMO’s daily Trolley Watch figures, there were 511 patients waiting to be seen, on trolleys or in wards on Tuesday 23 February.

Technically speaking, 379 were waiting on Emergency Department trolleys, but the overall figure is generally referred to as the “trolley count” because, as the INMO says, it “provides a picture of whole hospital overcrowding.”

Since the trolley count was 539 on 9 February, for example, today’s figure is clearly not the highest on record, and so Martin’s claim, interpreted literally, is FALSE.

However, he may well have been alluding to the overall trend.

It’s important to note that trolley counts can fluctuate significantly from day to day, and politicians on all sides have a tendency to cherry-pick points of comparison to suit their arguments.

For example, Health Minister Leo Varadkar did just that during tonight’s debate:

From those figures, there would appear to have been a 14% reduction in the number of patients on trolleys over the course of the current government’s tenure in office.

However, if we look at the INMO figures from February 2011 (below), we can see that there were in fact 391 people on trolleys on yesterday’s date in 2011, not 443, which is actually the number for 22 February 2011.

feb2011trolley Source: INMO

And if Varadkar had gone just one day further back, to 21 February 2011, the number would have been 338. That would indicate a 12% increase in the number of patients on trolleys, during the course of the current government’s time in office.

To avoid this selectivity and distortion (of which all sides are guilty), you have to look at the overall trends, which are recorded by the INMO here.

Since the INMO added wards to their trolley watch in 2013, they show annual increases in numbers of:

  • 21% from 2014-2015
  • 37% from 2013-2015

CLAIM: The government has recruited 750 more nurses and 300 more hospital consultants – Enda Kenny
Verdict: Half-TRUE

What was said:

We have recruited 750 nurses, 300 consultants…

The facts: 

90407005 Source: RollingNews.ie

We previously addressed the claim about nurses, which Kenny made during RTE’s first Leaders’ Debate.

According to the HSE’s Health Service Employment report for December 2015 (the most recent available), there were 35,353 nurses employed across the health service that month, which is 844 more than the same time in 2014.

So on a year-to-year basis, the Taoiseach’s claim is almost entirely TRUE, and in fact slightly understates the level of nursing recruitment in 2015.

The same report found 2,724 consultants employed by the HSE in December 2015, an increase of 89 from the same month in 2014.

So on a year-to-year basis, the claim of 300 extra consultants is FALSE.

However, there was an increase of 297 consultants between December 2010 and September 2015 (i.e. over the lifetime of the government), according to the HSE’s Health in Ireland report last year.

Then, there were 2,412, and in September 2015, there were 2,709.

So if the Fine Gael leader was referring to his party’s period in government, his claim about consultants would be almost entirely TRUE.

But if the same criteria were applied to nurses – change in numbers over the course of the entire government – that would show an overall decrease of 1,150, from 36,503 in 2010 to 35,353 in September.

Since the Taoiseach appears to mixing two vastly different periods of comparison, and the claims are true by one measure, and false by another, we rate the overall claim Half-TRUE.

CLAIM: Ireland’s life expectancy increased higher than any European country in the last decade – Micheál Martin
Verdict: FALSE

What was said:

Have you looked at the lifespan, which surely is the most important indicator of investment in health having an outcome?
Ireland’s lifespan, over the last decade, went up higher than any other European country…

The facts:

90384840 Elizabeth Dempsey from Sandymount in Dublin celebrates her 105th birthday Source: RollingNews.ie

First, a clarification. Life span is, technically, the maximum age attained by an individual within a particular group or species.

Life expectancy – which is what we assume Martin meant – is the age a person can expect to live to, based on the statistical average at the time of their birth.

Eurostat, the EU Commission’s statistics directorate, tracked life expectancy within the EU and Europe from 2002 to 2013.

We’ve analysed the figures from 2003-2013 (the last decade) and found that the European country with the highest increase was Estonia, where life expectancy went from 71.9 to 77.5 in that period.

Ireland ranked joint 15th, with an increase of 2.9 years, from 77.7 to 81.1.

Of the more advanced EU nations (EU-15), Luxembourg ranked first, and Ireland ranked sixth.

After this article was published, Fianna Fáil contacted us to provide a source for Martin’s claim – the OECD’s annual Health at a Glance statistics.

They stated (correctly) that from 1998 (Fianna Fáil’s first full year in power) to 2008, Ireland ranked first among advanced European countries for our increase in life expectancy.

Among all European countries, we ranked second, behind Estonia.

From 1998 to 2011, Ireland ranked second among advanced EU countries (behind Portugal).

Among all European countries, we ranked fourth.

However, let’s examine the period stipulated by Martin last night (the “last decade”), and check the OECD figures for 2003-2013 (the most recent year available.)

Among all European countries, we ranked 11th, and among the advanced EU countries, we ranked sixth.

There are figures from two different organisations here – the OECD and Eurostat – several different time periods, and two different categories – advanced EU nations, and all European nations.

By the most generous possible interpretation – life expectancy growth among advanced EU nations from 1998-2008, as recorded by the OECD – Ireland did rank first.

And among all European countries, we were still second.

In his claim last night, Martin stipulated the last decade, and did not stipulate advanced European countries, so we are still rating this claim as FALSE.

CLAIM: People under 50 are more likely to die by suicide than by cancer, heart disease, or car crash – Miriam O’Callaghan
Verdict: FALSE, More die from cancer than suicide

What was said:

During a conversation on mental health – the first substantial such conversation in any of the debates so far – Miriam O’Callaghan stated:

If you’re under 50 in Ireland, your greatest chance of dying isn’t heart disease, isn’t cancer, it isn’t a car crash, it’s actually by suicide.

The facts:

According to our analysis of CSO figures for 2014, deaths of people aged 49 and under fell into the following breakdown:

  • Cancer – 524
  • Suicide – 293
  • Heart disease – 165
  • Transport accidents – 105

Cronyism

endamcnulty The Taoiseach stumbles while answering a question on the appointment of John McNulty to the board of IMMA. Source: RTE

CLAIM: During the debate, Enda Kenny admitted, for the first time, appointing John McNulty to the board of IMMA – Gerry Adams
Verdict: TRUE

What was said last night:

You have a scoop here. You mightn’t know that you have an exclusive. This is the first time that the Taoiseach has admitted that he appointed John McNulty.
He never admitted, under questioning in the Dáil and elsewhere, that he actually made that appointment, and he did make that appointment.

The facts:

At the time of the controversy surrounding the appointment of John McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, before his nomination for the Seanad, Enda Kenny avoided saying he appointed him, or directed Arts Minister Heather Humphreys to appoint him.

For example, during an interview with RTE on 26 September 2014, he “accepted responsibility” for the debacle, but also stated that Humphreys had made the appointment.

I wouldn’t say it was my finest hour, and I take responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is…
I take responsibility here, I’m the leader of the party. The Minister for Arts and Heritage made her appointment on the basis of the credentials of John McNulty…

In response, Micheál Martin questioned the nature of the Taoiseach’s responsibility for the appointment, asking “what exactly is he apologising for?”

And during a Dáil debate four days later, Kenny declined to clarify in detail the nature and extent of his involvement in the appointment, and even seemed to suggest he was not “informed” of how it had come about:

Secondly, I accepted responsibility for taking my eye off this situation when I should have been more diligent about seeing it through. I have already said that publicly…
I am not happy about the situation as it evolved in the Fine Gael process, nor was I informed of that situation. For those reasons I feel it is beneath the standards that I have set myself.

This reticence is in contrast to the statement Kenny made during last night’s debate, during an exchange with Miriam O’Callaghan.

MOC: …You said at the time, you let your own standards and integrity down. What did you mean by that? What did you do?

The Taoiseach stumbled somewhat in his reply, then stated:

What I did was make an appointment that did not need to be made.

However, in a short press conference after the debate, it was put to the Taoiseach that he had said he himself appointed McNulty.

He appeared to take a step back from the clarity of his statement during the debate, saying:

The appointment was a line appointment by the Minister [Heather Humphreys]. I accepted responsibility for it in the Dáil.

There will no doubt be more said and more written about this particular issue, but regardless of any further statements made by the Taoiseach, he did firmly appear to admit making the appointment of McNulty himself, during tonight’s debate.

Since that is the first time he has done so, Adams’ claim is TRUE.

Originally published: 7.27 am

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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