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RTE Screengrab

'There's a fair few nutters in every party': The key moments from the RTÉ leaders' TV debate

The seven-way debate took place in NUIG tonight.

“THERE ARE A fair few nutters in every party, including my own.”

Some unusual words to come from the mouth of any party leader, never mind that of Leo Varadkar during a general election TV debate.

The seven leaders from the main political parties took part in RTÉ’s first live TV debate of the election campaign last night. 

The 90-minute programme was moderated by Claire Byrne and was broadcast live from NUIG in front of a 300-strong audience. 

The leaders of political parties which included – Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, Green Party’s Eamon Ryan, People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett, Labour’s Brendan Howlin and Roísín Shortall of the Social Democrats – clashed over housing, pensions, crime and taxation.

So, what were the main moments from tonight? 

The clap-o-meter

What topics and comments engaged the audience the most? Housing. No doubt about it. The issue sparked notable ‘whoop whoops’ and loud applause from the crowd in Galway this evening. 

The first buladh bos came with the call for an immediate rent freeze from Howlin.

This was followed by a strong audience reaction when Boyd Barrett mentioned Nama selling off €40 billion worth of State-owned land to vulture funds and private developers. 

Another outburst of applause was heard when the issue of banks was raised, and how Irish customers are being charged some of the highest mortgage rates in Europe, as well as when he highlighted that vulture funds and cuckoo funds pay little or no tax in Ireland.  

Certainly by this measure, Boyd Barrett had a good night tonight, resonating strongly with those on location.
All party leaders put forward their ideas of how to build more homes.

There were a couple more loud claps when McDonald said that Martin could not distance himself from the housing crisis “when he was the co-author of it”. 

There was a notable reaction from the audience when Varadkar slapped down Martin after he said that he couldn’t just wash his hands and pretend like his party hasn’t been in government for the last nine years. 

“We had to spend five years cleaning up your mess,” Varadkar hit back.

micheal martin RTE screengrab RTE screengrab

Housing has been dubbed one, if not the most important, issue of this election, and tonight, this seemed to ring true. 

All party leaders put forward their ideas of how to build more homes. Varadkar admitted that many people cannot afford their own home. He said his party is changing that through the Help-to-Buy scheme.

“You might as well give the cheque to the developer,” said Ryan, who would prefer the government go down the cost-rental route, also known as the Vienna model. 

Varadkar said they were looking at that model – citing just two pilot projects in the works. 

Martin said they’ll build homes through the local authorities, pointing out that Fine Gael promised affordable housing four years ago. It was never delivered upon, he said. 

rte debate Varadkar discussing tax that banks pay with McDonald. RTE screengrab RTE screengrab

While the Fianna Fáil leader perhaps failed to distance his party from Fine Gael’s housing policies of the past, Howlin and McDonald were eager to highlight it by saying there has been a “small trickle” of housing delivery, with the crisis not getting addressed under Fine Gael. 

When asked where all these construction workers are who are going to build all these wonderful houses, Boyd Barrett quipped: “They are building hotels we don’t need.”

Who will they couple-up with? 

The debate kicked off with a question straight out of Love Island – who are the parties willing to couple-up with after the general election?

Coming across like a team, Martin and Varadkar again ruled out doing business with McDonald.

Both pointed to a story on The Irish Times website this evening that reports that the party leader, as well as Sinn Féin candidates, have signed a pledge stating that they would be guided by instructions from its ruling body – the ard comhairle. 

McDonald said it was “incredibly arrogant” when party leaders say her voters should be “disregarded” and that they won’t go into government with Sinn Féin. 

“It isn’t personal,” replied Varadkar, who added it is largely to do with policy issues. 

Martin mentioned “the provos” when talking about the ard comhairle, arguing that it is different to how any other party is run. McDonald said it isn’t a “shadowy unelected entity”,pointing out that the members are voted for by the party membership at their annual Ard Fheis, which is televised. 

She said it is no different than the GAA, claiming it has the same structure – but Martin said it was fundamentally different than the national executive of other parties. 

The Fianna Fáil leader, seemingly more bothered by the idea of coupling up with Sinn Féin than Varadkar, said Sinn Fein are being arrogant. 

Martin said his party has “no obligation at all” to declare that he will enter into government with her party. 

“There’s very little we disagree on,” Brendan Howlin said of the Greens and Social Democrats, which could be the hint of a voting bloc to come, but Ryan and Shortall were a lot more coy about being dragged into any firm commitment or arrangement.

Empathetic Leo part two?

At the previous head-to-head between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar it was noteworthy that at several points during the debate the Taoiseach attempted to account for a perceived lack of empathy towards the issues in society his government has presided over.

“I show my empathy, I show the fact I care in the work I do. Maybe I don’t say the right words, but I show them in the work that I do,” he said on the Virgin Media debate. 

So, was empathetic Leo back again tonight? Not so much. 

There were barbs between Martin and McDonald at times, first with the “cleaning up” comment to the Fianna Fáil leader, and then a testy exchange with the Sinn Féin leader over her assertion that banks have not paid tax on their €2.4 billion profit.

Varadkar was keen to point out the bank levy has resulted in over a €1 billion from the banks. 

The Taoiseach used a bit of humour at times, showing he seemed a bit more at ease compared to last week’s debate. When asked about decriminalisation of drugs, he said: 

“I’ll try and avoid the long pause this time.”

Last week, you could have imagined tumbleweed blowing by when it took Varadkar what felt like decades to answer a question from Pat Kenny, telling the host that he had tried drugs in his youth. 

When put to Varadkar that one of his party colleagues said that some people in the Green Party are “nutters”, he replied: “There are a fair few nutters in every party, including my own.”

Pensions and auction politics

As the debate bedded in, the discussion moved on to taxation, with Varadkar stating that his promise of tax cuts is not a “bribe”.

He said it is merely allowing people keep more of their own money in their pockets. If Brexit goes downhill, he said that raising the income tax threshold to €50,000 probably won’t happen. 

Martin claimed that Fine Gael promised to cut the USC on a big election placard last time around, and that never materialised. He urged the public to be skeptical of tax cut promises. 

As Martin and Varadkar went back and forth on tax policy, McDonald intervened to remind viewers that of the two men “one crashed the economy and one is building the most expensive hospital in the world”.

“Who are you going to trust – those that reduced your taxes, or those that brought you the USC,” said the Fine Gael leader. 

On pensions, parties have already set out their stall. However, Boyd Barrett managed to land a dig by stating: 

“[The] people who really robbed the pension fund were the people who took billions out of the fund to bail out the banks.”

On farming, Ryan admitted that his party are in favour of culling the beef herd, something Varadkar disagreed with. The Green Party said the other parties “don’t get it” when it comes to climate change. 

As the debate came to a close, the leaders appealed to the voters.

Varadkar played the strong economy card for Fine Gael, while Martin said “more of the same” was not going to fix the health and housing crisis. McDonald appealed to voters with talk of the old boys failing the electorate, and asking the public to give Sinn Féin a chance. 

Will McDonald’s performance manage to keep her party polling numbers afloat? Did Martin manage to create enough space between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael? Did Varadkar successfully drive home his economic message? And did Ryan, Howlin, Shortall and Boyd Barrett manage to chip away some support from the most popular parties? 

We’ll have to wait for the most important poll (as they say). And that’s on 8 February. 

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