Leo Varadkar is not a "new European centrist", the Labour leader Brendan Howlin said on Sunday, but was actually the most conservative member of the last Government.
Mr Howlin strongly challenged the claims of Mr Varadkar to be part of a new European centrist politics, saying it “vexes” him.
"For a start, Fine Gael are members of Europe's conservative right wing political family," he said. "They are not centrists."
“And in truth, if you had asked me to pick a single representative of the last Government who best represented the views of conservative Christian Democracy, I would have reached for Leo Varadkar,” Mr Howlin said.
The Labour leader was speaking to his party’s think-in in Athy Co Kildare in advance of the new Dáil term, which begins later this month.
He said that Mr Varadkar, with whom he served in Government for five years between 2011-16, wanted deeper cuts in public spending during the austerity period and initially opposed proposals to repeal the eighth amendment. He also initially opposed gender recognition legislation, Mr Howlin said, which allows for transgender people to change their birth certificates. He also suggested that Mr Varadkar proposed outlawing public sector strikes during the Fine Gael election campaign.
“All of these are very conservative stances that any Christian Democratic party would be happy with,” Mr Howlin said.
Sinn Féin at Westminster
Mr Howlin also appealed to Sinn Féin to take its seats at Westminster to help vote down plans for a hard Brexit and promised to table new laws preventing profitable companies from avoiding tax.
Mr Howlin said that Sinn Féin could act “in Ireland’s interest” rather than just in the party’s interest by taking its seats at Westminster for votes on the Brexit legislation. “I don’t say this to score points,” he said, citing the examples of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stuart Parnell who represented Ireland’s interests in the British parliament.
“When times change, when Ireland’s interest demands, that is when people step up to the plate,” Mr Howlin said.
“I can’t think of a better test of Sinn Féin’s readiness to govern than rising to the national challenge on this occasion.”
Mr Howlin also said that Labour would seek a minimum effective tax rate for profitable companies, in what would be a major shake up of Ireland corporate taxation regime.
He said the party would table new laws to limit the amount of time that banks can write off past losses against tax, pointing out that AIB has recently told investors that it may not pay tax for up to 30 years because it can carry forward the losses it suffered during the economic crash. Mr Howlin made corporate tax reform a major theme of his speech to TDs and senators.
“We will demand the withdrawal of refundable tax credit from companies who are paying no tax at all,” Mr Howlin said.
“We will continue to say that employers should make a bit more of a contribution towards the cost of higher education.
“And we will say clearly that if companies do not pay their staff decent wages, they should no longer be benefitting from reduced VAT rates.”