Leaders' Debate

Up to the minute coverage as the party bosses face off

Colin Gleeson, Harry McGee Mon, Feb 15
 
LIVE: Leaders' Debate

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  • 20:00

    Good evening and welcome to The Irish Times’ live blog of tonight’s leaders’ debate ahead of the General Election on February 26th.

    My name is Colin Gleeson and I will be bringing you all the action and reaction from the University of Limerick tonight where the leaders of seven political parties will joust while RTÉ’s Claire Byrne moderates.

    Ms Byrne said of her task earlier today: "There's no doubt about it, this debate is a big challenge."

  • 20:06

    Earlier today, a legal challenge over RTÉ’s refusal to add Green Party leader Eamon Ryan to the debate was dismissed by a High Court judge.

    RTÉ’s criterion for the debate is that only parties with three TDs in the outgoing Dail can take part.

    Ms Justice Marie Baker agreed with the broadcaster’s position that the Greens were effectively seeking to have RTÉ’s apply “subjective” criteria that would favour the Greens over other parties.

  • 20:09

    The standing positions have been picked out of a hat and will run from left to right as:

    Richard Boyd Barrett (People before Profit), Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein), Micheál Martin (Fianna Fáil), Enda Kenny (Fine Gael), Joan Burton (Labour), Stephen Donnelly (Social Democrats) and Lucinda Creighton (Renua).

  • 20:10
    If you’d like to get involved, you can tweet me @ColinGleeson IT. The hash tag for the event is #LeadersDebate
  • 20:15

    The questions for tonight’s debate have been chosen by a panel involving political academics Michael Marsh (Trinity College Dublin), David Farrell (University College Dublin), and Claire Byrne Live Executive Producer Aoife Stokes.

    RTÉ has said the questions will cover major topics in the election campaign such as the economy, health, and crime.

    There will be approximately six to eight questions. All of the questions will be addressed to the leaders in general, rather than to any one individual.

    RTÉ has also assured us that there will be no “plants” in the audience, and that it will be made up of approximately 350 people who have been selected by independent market research/polling company Red C.

  • 20:20

    The leaders’ debate is scheduled to take place from 9.35pm-11.15pm.

    Meanwhile, TV3 is hosting a deputy leaders’ debate from 10.30pm which will feature Fine Gael’s James Reilly, the Labour Party’s Alan Kelly, Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald.

    We’ll endeavour to bring you updates from both.

  • 20:24

    As you might expect, there are big crowds forming in the University of Limerick as the audience files in.

    Fianna Fail leader Mícheál Martin, dressed in a dark suit and a blue tie, is the first to arrive for debate.

    All of the leaders have to pass by a fairly intimidating looking press pack on arrival.

  • 20:24
  • 20:39

    Over 800,000 viewers tuned in to the first leaders' debate on TV3 last week.

    Many people were critical of the debate, suggesting that participants seemed more intent on shouting each other down than having a substantive debate on the issues.

    Micheál Martin was widely regarded as having performed best. He was arguably the most consistent performer throughout and was strongest on health. That was despite it being a subject on which he is thought to be weak, partly due to his being the minister who set up the HSE.

    Enda Kenny was the only one not to raise his voice. He tried to remain calm and many remarked that he seemed intent on appearing “presidential” throughout.

    Gerry Adams came under sustained attack from his three opponents over his party’s proposal to abolish the Special Criminal Court. But he was generally thought to have performed well.

    Joan Burton was aggressive and it got personal with Adams at times. At one stage, she could be heard bellowing at Adams “don’t wave your finger at me” before suggesting it was the “army council” he takes his orders from.

    Hopefully plenty more of that to come tonight.

  • 20:44

    They’re arriving thick and fast now.

    Renua leader Lucinda Creighton is the second leader to arrive. She says her strategy for the night is to be herself.

    Next up are Joan Burton and Richard Boyd Barrett.

    Burton said she was very excited about the debate as it is important for voters to hear the arguments being put forward.

  • 20:52

    General election poll of polls: has Fine Gael’s momentum hit a speed bump?

    The latest update from Irish Polling Indicator’s poll of polls seems to suggest the party has been declining a little bit by little bit since its peak in December.

    You can read the details here.

  • 20:52
  • 21:04

    Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said he was hoping it would focus on the policies rather than the personalities.

    Tanaiste Joan Burton said she would be using the opportunity to remind the voters of Fianna Fail's legacy in the economic crash.

    Taoiseach Enda Kenny said his message to viewers was the recovery must be kept going.

    I wonder how many times he will repeat the phrase tonight.

  • 21:05

    People before Profit-Anti Austerity Alliance TD Richard Boyd Barrett said he had no interest in engaging in personality politics.


    He said he wanted to use the debate to get his party's message across and that he hoped the RTE debate would not descend into the difficulties that arose in last week's TV3 debate.


    Social Democrat TD Stephen Donnelly said this was the biggest opportunity for his party in their short history.


    Mr Donnelly said the party was now being considered as potential kingmakers in the next Government.

  • 21:11
  • 21:14

    Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has said a “cosy consensus” has emerged between among the three other main political parties.

    He said Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour had cranked up the fear factor but insisted it had not worked.

  • 21:19
  • 21:20

    It's Harry McGee joining Colin Gleeson on the Live Blog.

    With 15 minutes to go, there is a lot of antipication.

    There are a lot of imponderable.

    For one, it's the fist time since the presidential election in 2011 that we have had seven candidates.

    And in the wake of last week's shouting match, RTE will be keen to avoid a prolonged unseemly cacophony involving seven rather than four.

    I woudl say that Claire Byrne will be determined to keep a tight rein on proceedings, although interventions will be involved.

    Another interesting aspect will to see how the leaders of the smaller parties perform against the big guns.

    All three of them are really good speakers. We could see one of the three - Lucinda Creighton, Richard Boyd-Barrett or Stephen Donnelly - emerge as the Nichola Sturgeon of this campaign.

  • 21:24
    Preparations have been well underway for some time now
    Preparations have been well underway for some time now
  • 21:33
    We are almost underway now.
  • 21:34
  • 21:38
    Claire Byrne is formally welcoming the various candidates.
  • 21:38
    HMG There will be a second parallel, erm, debate happening on Twitter. Expect the contributions to come in thick and heavy.
    It's just about to start now.
    Claire Byrne is doing the introductions.
    They have drawn lots for places.
  • 21:41

    The first question is in relation to the amount of broken promises in the past, and how the public can trust the parties.

    Kenny is up first. He is talking about how the country has recovered from the economic crisis.

    He warns however that this “cannot be taken for granted”.

  • 21:42
    HMG There are no opening statements. First question is about broken promises. That question is about the government and will put the two coalition leaders under pressure.
    in true town hall style, Enda Kenny has name-checked the person from the audience who asked the question.
    Rule Number One is to make it personal and address the questioner by name.
  • 21:42

    That didn’t take long.

    We’ve had the first “keep the recovery going” from Kenny.

  • 21:43

    He says reducing taxes incentivises people to return to work.

  • 21:44

    Richard Boyd Barrett is talking about the Government’s plans in the context of the “fiscal space” available.

    He is immediately rebuked by Claire Byrne for using the phrase, which she says is “banned”.

    She earlier instructed the leaders to refrain from political jargon.

  • 21:46

    Micheal Martin is attacking Fine Gael on its promises.

    He says they will “undermine the revenue base”.

    He also says average families “need a break”.

  • 21:47
  • 21:48

    Burton has stuck to her promise to remind viewers of Fianna Fail’s role in the crisis.

    She thinks what Martin has had to say is “laughable”.

    He can’t pretend Fianna Fail’s past never happened, she says.

    “Remember that FF crashed the country.”

  • 21:48
  • 21:49

    Stephen Donnelly is running a fine eye over the Government’s figures and is of the view that the abolition of the USC can’t be done.

    “What we need is a stable tax base,” he says, before adding that the “economic storm clouds are gathering”.

  • 21:50
  • 21:53

    Gerry Adams brings things back to the question, which has, to be fair, been totally ignored by all the leaders so far.

    He looks across the line at Burton, Kenny and Martin and says all the electorate need to do to learn about broken promises is to look at the “three amigos”.

  • 21:54

    Adams is on the attack.

    He says Kenny and FG have deliberately cooked the numbers to deceive the electorate.

  • 21:56
  • 21:56

    Martin references the Banking Inquiry and points out that it found the economic crisis was more complicated than the “blame Fianna Fail” ethos that dominated a lot of commentary at the time.

    He also highlights the finding that the policies of opposition parties would have made matters worse.

  • 21:57
  • 22:00
    HMG: I must say that the second question was a little bit too specific. He is asking about rural jobs. Maybe it should have been spreading jobs beyond the biggest urban centres, mainly Dublin.

  • 22:00

    The next question is about how the next government will spread jobs around the country, with an emphasis on rural Ireland.

    Burton is in combative form and says the reduction of unemployment has been focused in the south east.

  • 22:02

    Donnelly says the State is over reliant on multinational companies.

    He says people in small towns and villages are “scared stiff”.

    He says that rather than cutting taxes, the State should work towards reducing the cost of living.

  • 22:03
  • 22:03

    Kenny has spent a lot of his speaking time listing off achievements.

    Claire Byrne has attempted to cut in and look for a little more substance from the Taoiseach.

  • 22:05

    Creighton says she has spent half her life in rural Ireland and that the people there are telling the Government that there has been no recovery.

    She says her party is the only one that is seeking “full tax equality”.

  • 22:07
    “From Donegal to West Cork, broadband capability is appalling,” according to Martin.  
  • 22:08
  • 22:10

    Adams is saying that there hasn’t been a recovery in rural Ireland, highlighting the closure of rural post offices and Garda stations.

    Claire Byrne is unhappy and wants to know about the “solutions you have”.

    “What are you going to do about it?” she demands to know.

  • 22:11
  • 22:13
  • 22:15

    Burton talks about building a fairer society and bringing emigrants home.

    Creighton retorts: “The reality is your policies are driving our teachers, doctors, and nurses abroad."

  • 22:16
  • 22:17

    Donnelly wants to “debunk the myth” that the next Government can abolish the USC and keep any of its promises.

    “There won’t be a penny to equalise wages for new entrants,” he says. “There won’t be a penny to build a proper health service. There won’t be a penny to back Ireland’s businesses.”

  • 22:17
  • 22:17
  • 22:19
  • 22:22

    A little bit of sparring between Adams and Kenny leads to a more general schmozzle between the lot of them.

    Adams says “we’re in the mess we’re in” because of the Taoiseach’s policies and performance negotiating in Europe.

    Kenny tells him: “You voted against Europe and everything else.”

    Claire Byrne has to raise her voice to regain control and says they are moving on to talk about health.

    The next question is in relation to the trolley crisis.

  • 22:22
    Kenny acknowledges they couldn’t keep every promise and do everything they had wanted to do.
  • 22:25

    Creighton attacks FF on its spending in health when Martin was minister. She says spending doubled but nothing improved.

    Martin is not happy.

  • 22:25
    So who's doing best so far. Richard Boyd Barrett had a very strong contribution about those on low pay, which was vey passionate. He gave a soft version of what PBP's policy is on big corporations and small corporation but it was effective.
    Stephen Donnelly has been very smooth and confident, and has made strong general points on reducing costs and enterprise. Probably strongest so far.
    Lucinda Creighton has been a little quiet so far but in her contributions has focused on Renua's target base. She has not attacked her opponents but focused on her own policies.
    Micheal Martin has been combative as one would expect. Typical has been his challenge of Claire Byrne's question on health. But he ahs not been as dominant as he was last week.
    Enda Kenny has been more prominent and has held his own.
    Joan Burton has been uncharacteristically subdued and poor so far. Has not really made a big contribution.
    Gerry Adams has been the most aggressive and has attacked the three other big parties at all time. He has been back-footed once or twice, and ended up waffling on rural policy when Claire Byrne started tackling him.
  • 22:26
    Creighton says “all the grand plans” for health, such as universal health care, were “designed to win votes”.
  • 22:28
  • 22:28

    Burton is wagging her finger over at Adams.

    He missed a trick there.

  • 22:28
    HMG Just to add to my assessment of events so far. Claire Byrne has been very strong. Her questions have been very pointed, more robust than any of the others.
  • 22:29
  • 22:30

    Donnelly is proposing an NHS style health service.

    Byrne challenges him that the NHS has its problems too.

    Donnelly says people are afraid of getting sick because they will have to go into an Irish hospital.

  • 22:30
  • 22:32

    “What we need is a modern system,” says Donnelly, who adds the State should “help people manage their own health”.

    Boyd Barrett says he also wants to see an NHS style system.

    “But it has to work!” intervenes Byrne.

    “Of course it has to work!” replies Boyd Barrett.

  • 22:33
  • 22:33
  • 22:35

    “Are we citizens or subjects,” asks Adams pointedly.

    “Every citizen in a Republic should not be afraid to go into a hospital,” he adds.

  • 22:35
  • 22:36
    Martin accuses Gerry Adams of speaking like Eamon Gilmore did during the last election.
  • 22:36
  • 22:37
  • 22:37
    “We have to be honest with people,” says Martin. “What we are proposing is pragmatic reform.”
  • 22:37
  • 22:38
    Boyd Barrett is attacking the two tier health system and says access to health should be based on need rather than money.
  • 22:39
    Burton accuses Donnelly of “management consultant talk”.
  • 22:40

    Burton says: “I defy anyone here to say the health service is entirely bad.”

    Clutching at straws a little.

  • 22:42
    They are all arguing again and Byrne interjects to say “all we’re hearing now is nothing” to applause from the audience.
  • 22:44

    We’ve moved on to housing.

    Byrne seems keen to keep things under control and interrupts Burton several times to say she is not addressing the question.

  • 22:46

    More families are being driven into homelessness by the failure to address rent certainty, says Martin.

    Burton has her “head in the sand” on this issue, he says.

    He adds that the homelessness crisis has never been worse.

  • 22:47
    Kenny shakes his head as his one time ally Creighton says the Government has built no houses.
  • 22:49

    Boyd Barrett is clearly trying to make an impression as he again raises his voice.

    He says the problem in relation to housing is due to “the political will and the disastrous decisions taken by this Government”.

  • 22:51

    Byrne is grilling Boyd Barrett on mortgage write downs.

    She wants to know who decides who gets them and what the criteria would be.

    Boyd Barrett appeared a little rattled and replied that people need to be kept in their homes.

  • 22:54

    Donnelly wants a new ministry as well as a new agency to deal with housing.

    Byrne challenges him about setting up “more quangos”.

    Donnelly lists off a number of ways in which the organisation could help the situation and says it would be “well worth setting up”.

  • 22:59

    Byrne asks Kenny why he didn’t let Labour put rent supplement up.

    Kenny appears to be tripping over his words a little and Burton intervenes.

    They both begin to talk over one other but there is no nonsense from Byrne.

    “If you’re going to talk over each other I’ll walk away,” she tells them before moving on to Gerry Adams.

    “Thank you very much,” says Adams suggesting a contribution from his corner was overdue.

  • 23:05

    Adams references a comment made by Burton during the first debate when she suggested Fr Peter McVerry was not “familiar with what we do” in relation to housing.

    He says Burton said McVerry “doesn’t know anything about homelessness.

    “That’s a lie,” shouts Burton back at him. “I have the height of respect for Fr McVerry. So, Gerry, we’re well used to your equivocations and dirty tricks. That is something I never said.”

  • 23:07

    We’re onto crime now.

    Creighton says the Government’s record on crime is “an absolute indictment”.

    Byrne goes to Donnelly and says his party isn’t too bothered about crime because it dones’t feature heavily in the manifesto.

  • 23:09

    Byrne attacks Donnelly and claims: “A lot of your answers tonight are about talking to people and asked people what they want.”

    “Imagine that,” says Donnelly.

    He says front line workers are the people best placed to come up with solutions.

    “I will state proudly that we need to talk to our front line workers.”

  • 23:11

    Burton says they are bringing in a second Special Criminal Court.

    Byrne says there is a two year waiting list for current one.

  • 23:12
    You can have your say on who won tonight's debate in our poll  here.
  • 23:13

    Martin says the Special Criminal Court is needed.

    Byrne asks Adams if he wants to talk about it.

    He replies that the party’s position on the matter is clear.

  • 23:17

    Boyd Barrett says that if people in rural areas feel they need their Garda stations reopened, it should happen.

    Byrne wants to know how he’s going to do it and there is a bit of a back and forth between them.

    “I’ve just told you what I want to do,” says Boyd Barrett.

    “This is taxpayers’ money,” says Byrne. If people want Garda stations, they’ll get them. That’s populist politics.”

  • 23:20

    Kenny asks Byrne to be allowed to make one more point, and references Gerry Adams before saying that he remembers the killing of Det Jerry McCabe.

    “The charge of murder was reduced to manslaughter,” he says, before adding that witness and jury intimidation is a problem.

  • 23:20
  • 23:21

    An audience member wants to know who will go into government with whom.

    Kenny says Labour. Byrne tells him the numbers won’t add up.

  • 23:22

    Kenny says he will “certainly not” go into government with Fianna Fail.

    “Under any circumstances?” asks Byrne.

    “Certainly not,” repeats Kenny.

  • 23:23
  • 23:24
  • 23:25

    Creighton is asked whether she would do business with Kenny.

    She says there is no difference between FF and FG.

    She won’t answer the question under challenge from Byrne, but says Renua will “not enter government just to make up the numbers”.

    She finally seems to get round to answering the question and says FF and FG are the same and it doesn’t matter which of them.

  • 23:26
  • 23:28

    Byrne wants to know what parties, if any, People before Profit would do business with.

    Boyd Barrett says the party will have discussions with anyone who is interested in implementing their policies.

    He adds that they won’t do what Labour did the last time around.

  • 23:28
    Burton again takes the opportunity to attack Fianna Fail’s legacy.
  • 23:30

    Donnelly says his party “won’t be propping up any government”.

    Under pressure from Byrne, he says: “We will talk to anybody who is interested in bringing the country onto a better path with social democratic values.”

  • 23:30

    We are now hearing closing statements.

    Kenny’s is predictable. He speaks about the upturn in the economy and finishes as he began: “Keep the recovery going.”

  • 23:31
  • 23:32
    Creighton says Renua is committed to “ending cronyism, keeping promises, and telling the truth”.
  • 23:33
  • 23:33
    A good line from Donnelly who says the election shouldn’t be billed as a question of “fairness or recovery” but “fairness and recovery”.
  • 23:34
    Boyd Barrett has said he wants to see a society based on fairness, where there is a right to health and a decent education.
  • 23:35
  • 23:35
    Burton tells the audience that the debate has shown the clear choice facing people between the “hope and optimism” of the Government parties and the “anger and despair” of the opposition.
  • 23:36
    Adams says SF delivered peace in the North and now wants to deliver on the promises of the 1916 Proclamation in the Republic.
  • 23:37

    That brings an end to the debate.

    We’ll bring you some of the reaction as it comes in.

  • 23:39
    Harry McGee has written a piece on “five things we learned from the debate”, which you can find here.
  • 23:44
  • 23:50
  • 23:50
  • 23:59
    In the deputy leaders’ debate, Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen said it was not acceptable and “inconceivable” that 100 years after the 1916 Rising some 1,600 children are in emergency accommodation in Ireland.
  • 00:00
    In his opening statement, Alan Kelly said the Labour Party was “the party of work” and the party that believed in “work over welfare”.
  • 00:00
    In what has become a familiar Government mantra, Mr Kelly asked voters not to “put the recovery at risk”.
  • 00:02

    Like her party leader on RTE, Sinn Fein deputy Mary Lou McDonald said she wanted to live in a society where the Proclamation was fulfilled.

    This included living in an Ireland where a home was “a right and not a dream”.

  • 00:03

    James Reilly said Fine Gael created 166,000 jobs during “the worst of economic times” and would create another 200,000 over the next five years.

    He asked the people of Ireland to stay with Fine Gael and Labour in order to stay with the recovery, as opposed to electing a “high-tax” coalition of Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin.

  • 00:04
  • 00:13

    As it stands, 30 per cent of respondents to the Irish Times poll think Stephen Donnelly won the debate.

    The rest come in at Gerry Adams (19 per cent), Micheal Martin (13 per cent), Richard Boyd Barrett (13 per cent), Enda Kenny (11 per cent), Lucinda Creighton (4 per cent), and Joan Burton (4 per cent).

    There are 6 per cent of people who said there was no clear winner.

  • 00:16
  • 00:17

    Speaking after the debate, Tanaiste Joan Burton said she was not surprised by the Taoiseach's refusal to enter coalition with Fianna Fail.

    Burton said she has regular discussions with Mr Kenny and knew his position on future Government options.

  • 00:18

    Martin has said he is out to win the election and is fielding worthy candidates in each constituency.

    He declined to answer questions about whether he would be the first Fianna Fail leader to not become Taoiseach.

  • 00:21
    The big winner in the debate appears to be moderator Claire Byrne who is drawing plenty of praise for her performance, with some suggesting she would make a better Taoiseach than the rest of them.
  • 00:21
  • 00:29

    You can read Irish Times’ political editor Stephen Collins take on the debate here.


    He says the leaders of the three smaller parties emerged strongest.


    None of the major party leaders did enough to generate any obvious momentum from the debate, although they will all have reassured their own party supporters.


    Overall, it was a much more informative and less acrimonious affair than the much-criticised TV3 debate last week which featured the leaders of the four big parties.


    Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin effectively cancelled each other out but they did not interrupt and heckle each other in the way they did last week.


    The big winners were the three smaller party leaders. Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats came across as assured, particularly in his criticism of the main parties for engaging in “auction politics”, although he flagged later in the debate when he was put under pressure when questioned on crime and housing.

  • 00:36

    With that, we will bring the live blog to a close.

    It remains to be seen whether an interesting if slightly underwhelming debate with no clear winner will do much to sway voters.

    In the meantime, many of the leaders will be happy to have come through what was a challenging debate without any major damage done.

    Thanks for reading and see irishtimes.com for all the latest reaction and election coverage over the coming days.