Sinn Féin’s suitability to be a party of government was one of the dominant themes of the final TV debate between the main party leaders, with questions raised about the party’s economic policies and its paramilitary associations.
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and his Fianna Fáil counterpart, Micheál Martin, focused on potential weaknesses in Sinn Féin’s appeal to voters during the second leaders’ debate of the campaign on RTÉ on Tuesday evening, which was moderated by Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullagh.
It followed the emergence of Sinn Féin as the most popular party among the electorate after overtaking both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll.
Ms McDonald’s late addition to the line-up for the debate was confirmed on Monday on foot of a series of polls which showed a surge of support for Sinn Féin by the electorate. The original decision by RTÉ to exclude had been sharply criticised by the Sinn Féin president, who used Tuesday’s debate to highlight how there was “a thirst for change” from voters after years of a Fine Gael government supported by Fianna Fáil.
While Ms McDonald was regarded by some political observers as benefiting by not participating in the first leaders’ debate hosted on Virgin Media Television on January 22nd, she faced close scrutiny on several issues on Tuesday evening, with Mr Varadkar claiming Sinn Féin was “soft on crime” and having a manifesto “full of taxes”.
Mr Martin pointed out that Sinn Féin had repeatedly voted against supporting the continuation of the Offences Against the State Act.
The Sinn Féin leader described the Fine Gael leader’s criticism of her party’s stance on the Special Criminal Court as “a clarion call of desperation”.
However, she declined to directly answer a question on whether she supported the Special Criminal Court, and instead remarked that there was need of 21st century processes to deal with “21st century criminals”.
With just four days to go to polling day on Saturday, all three leaders were conscious that many voters still remain undecided as they pitched various policies in a bid to win support at a crucial stage of the campaign.
In a debate in which each party leader frequently attacked both their opponents, the Fine Gael leader acknowledged it was a “change election”, adding that his government had been driving change across social reform, a growing economy, Garda resources and preparing for the impact of Brexit.
“That is the kind of change I’ve been making happen, and I want to see it through,” Mr Varadkar.
The Taoiseach warned that a Fianna Fáil government would “wreck the economy”, while a Sinn Féin victory would put people’s jobs and income at risk.
Mr Varadkar sought to defend his government’s policy on housing, claiming the figures at addressing the crisis were starting to move in the right direction.
However, the Fianna Fáil leader said Fine Gael had “left everything to the market for too long”.
Ms McDonald justified her party’s policy to introduce a rent freeze, claiming the scale of the housing problem required such intervention. She accused Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael of respectively being the party of developers and landlords.
Mr Martin said the charge that Fianna Fáil had been in government for four years was “the big lie of the campaign”, and defended his party’s role in a confidence and supply agreement as doing “the right thing by the country”.
The Fianna Fáil leader said people wanted change, and said his party would bring it in in the area of insurance, housing childcare and health.
In a debate where each leader attacked the policies of both their opponents, Ms McDonald was force to defend Sinn Féin’s plans to abolish the Local Property Tax and impose a new 5 per cent tax on people earning over €140,000.
She said her party supported the retention of the 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate as well as tax reliefs for research and development but Sinn Féin did not support “gaping loopholes” which allowed banks and vulture funds enjoy “sweetheart deals”.
Mr Varadkar said Sinn Féin’s plans would mean a top income tax rate of 57 per cent, while Mr Martin said abolition of LPT would leave a €450 million hole to fill.
Turning his attack to Fianna Fáil’s economic policies, Mr Varadkar said asking Mr Martin to run the economy was “like asking John Delaney back to run the FAI”.
On internal party problems, the Taoiseach expressed annoyance with the decision by former Fine Gael TD Dara Murphy to appear to change his mind about cooperating with an inquiry into his long-term absence from the Dáil before resigning late last year.
“I’ve a big problem with that,” Mr Varadkar said.
Questioned over his handling of controversies involving Mr Murphy and former Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey, he said he had followed due process and had “given people a second chance when maybe I shouldn’t have”.
Mr Martin declined to state whether or not he would include Niall Collins or Timmy Dooley in cabinet if Fianna Fáil formed a government given he had suspended both TDs from his front bench last year following a controversy over voting in the Dáil.
Ms McDonald faced questions about calls by the mother of Paul Quinn, who was beaten to death by a group of men in a barn in Co Monaghan in 2007, for an apology from Conor Murphy, the Northern Ireland minister for finance, over the Sinn Féin MLA’s suggestion that her son was widely known to be involved in smuggling and criminal activity.
The Sinn Féin president said “those things should not have been said” by her party colleague.
Ms McDonald said she had spoken to Mr Murphy and he had apologised and withdrawn his remarks and would speak to Breege Quinn about the matter.
Asked why she had stated in another interview on RTÉ on Monday that Mr Murphy had not made such remarks, Ms McDonald said her recollection was that his comments had “not been as explicit”.
On the final question of what was their biggest political mistake, Mr Martin said he had learnt to sometimes stand out “against the herd” and to “listen more to the contrarian voice”, while Ms McDonald accepted she had made a lot of mistakes including during Sinn Féin’s last electoral outing in the local and European elections.
Mr Varadkar said he made mistakes “all the time” and often answered straight questions with straight answers that were sometimes “too blunt”.