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'You'll get into bed with anyone': Key moments from last night's seven-way leaders' debate

The debate took place at Virgin Media’s Ballymount studio.

Image: Virgin Media

“You’re politically promiscuous. You’ll get into bed with anyone.”

So said Matt Cooper to Green Party leader Eamon Ryan during last night’s General Election TV debate on Virgin Media. 

All seven leaders from the main political parties took part in the live event ahead of General Election 2020. 

The 90-minute programme was moderated by Ivan Yates and Cooper. Broadcast from Virgin’s studio in Ballymount, it came 4 days after RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live debate at NUIG. 

All seven candidates – Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, The Green Party’s Eamon Ryan, Solidarity-People Before Profit’s Mick Barry, Labour’s Brendan Howlin and The Social Democrats’ Catherine Murphy – clashed over housing, hospitals and a united Ireland. 

Here are our key moments. 

‘A generation locked out’

First up? Tax and spending. 

Host Yates kicked off proceedings asking all seven candidates to defend tax cuts and spending outlined in their manifestos. 

Both Varadkar and Martin – who insisted their spending plans align with Department of Finance limits and European Union fiscal rules – criticised Sinn Féin’s plans for €4 billion in new taxes. 

Dismissing both leaders’ “outbursts”, McDonald defended her party’s plans, arguing it would “drive job creation”. 

To be sure, it was a tetchy, if at times clamorous start as Yates tackled each TD on their political promises. 

Barry challenged the Taoiseach on the “€14.3 billion owed by Apple” in Corporation Tax. Murphy, meanwhile, described the Local Property Tax as a “con job”, arguing reliable public services were key when it came to taxes.  

“When [people] pay their taxes, people have to see a return on those taxes,” said Murphy, as talk moved on to a rent freeze and affordable housing. 

“How many of you actually own your own home?” barked Yates, asking for a show of hands from all seven TDs, whose arms promptly shot up. 

As the Taoiseach defended Fine Gael’s Rebuilding Ireland, McDonald tackled Martin on his rent-freeze stance, arguing in favour of one.

“Michéal Martin’s alibi and his flip-flopping on this rent freeze is astonishing,” she said. “He just doesn’t want to do it…and he’s hiding.”

McDonald was arguably at her strongest here. “If Fianna Fáil are the party of the developers, Fine Gael are the party of the landlords,” she declared. 

Capture

Martin during this section challenged the Taoiseach on his Government’s housing policy. “Leo, I don’t know if you get it,” he said to Varadkar. “There are thousands of people looking for social houses.”

Ryan and Murphy both argued in favour of balanced regional development. 

Howlin, meanwhile, argued, “auction politics” was at play again when it came to tax-cut promises and policies on housing. 

“You can’t spend the same euro twice,” said the Labour leader, stood towards the end of a blue and red set, a design mix somewhere between Tron and the short-lived ITV game show Babushka. 

With interruptions from party leaders – and hosts – the debate moved on to health and hospitals with the Taoiseach forced to defend the massive costs of The National Children’s Hospital. 

“I absolutely acknowledge the fact that the cost of building a National Children’s Hospital was underestimated,” a chastened Varadkar said.

Next came Martin’s defence of his tenure as Health Minister and his party’s plans to tackle hospital overcrowding and waiting lists. “We’re the only party to say we want to get people off the waiting list quickly,” he said, followed shortly after by Barry who raised mental health and service cuts. 

Labour’s Howlin agreed, describing it as “shocking….the notion that young children are often required to go into adult hospitals”. 

‘A homily from Michéal Martin?’

Once again, there was no shortage of barbs traded between Martin and McDonald this evening.

Host Cooper asked each leader ‘When is the right time to hold a border poll?’

Howlin – from “the party of [James] Connolly” – said it was time to have a conversation but with no prescription on time limits. “We need to bring the people with us,” he said. 

For Varadkar, the right time for a border poll? “At a point where I think it’d be successful,” he said. 

Barry argued for a time when “the vast majority of working-class people north and south Catholic and Protestant supports change”.

Martin – channelling Wolfe Tone – said a United Ireland is “not about timelines. I think it needs parity of esteem and we need to bring people with us and it needs to be a unity of people. 

Murphy said “consent is key” with Ryan saying “it will take time”. 

McDonald, meanwhile, said “planning for unity needs to start now” going on to say Fine Gael’s planned RIC commemoration was “absolutely insulting”. 

The Sinn Féin leader’s ire was saved, though, for Martin, who said the “greatest barrier to Irish unity has been Sinn Féin” who the Fianna Fáil leader said, “had damaged the prospects of a united Ireland more than any other political party”. 

As Cooper tried to get his questions across, McDonald fired back: “There’s nobody in the North that needs a homily from Michéal Martin on the Troubles.”

Throughout the debate, Varadkar – who admitted the RIC commemoration was “a mistake” – took a notable back seat when it came to trading jibes, focusing instead on policies his Government had implemented and ensured he made his points clearly. 

As the debate rolled on to climate change, Green Party’s Ryan hammered home his point that whoever is in Government after the General Election is “going to have to come together” to tackle it. 

With that, it was time to bed down for the night. 

Varadkar and Martin both ruled out any coalition with Sinn Féin.

Varadkar dismissed a Sinn Féin coalition for “what their policies would do in future rather than what had been done in the past”. 

Yet the Taoiseach also challenged Martin as he named a number of Fianna Fáil candidates who he said are open to a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition. ”My party is behind me in opposing coalition with Sinn Féin. Fianna Fáil is divided,” he said. 

Martin, meanwhile, said he had “no intention of being Leo’s last resort” and said he didn’t want Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Health Minister Simon Harris back in the cabinet. 

The line of the evening came from Cooper who – after hearing where Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin stand – said of Ryan: “You’re politically promiscuous. You’ll get into bed with anyone and they all seem to want to sleep with you.”

Ryan fired back: “The scale of the climate and biodiversity crisis before us is beyond compare.

“We have to, to make it work, to make the leap we need to make as a people…I believe it has to be three or four Governments in a row. I think it will only work best when everyone and every place matters.

“We will work with different parties to respect the people that vote for them and to try and get them involved in this transition.”

With that, it was time for finishing pitches. A loud, disjointed debate had ended. 

Next up is a final head-to-head between Varadkar and Martin on RTÉ next Tuesday. 

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