Leaders' Debate

All the action from the final televised debate

Colin Gleeson Tue, Feb 23
LIVE: Leaders' Debate

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  • 20:00

    The General Election is just days away and it is all to play for in what is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable and potentially transformative polls in modern Irish history.

    Many have called the campaign dull and devoid of dynamic, but with only three days left before voters go to the ballot box, there is still time for drama to unfold.

    This election had been billed as a cakewalk for Fine Gael but the senior Coalition partner has seen its support ebb away in recent weeks with each passing opinion poll.

    The latest Ipsos MRBI poll, published in today’s Irish Times, shows Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Enda Kenny have equal support for Taoiseach.

    That is sure to provide an interesting backdrop to tonight’s debate, with Martin looking to build on what has been a highly successful campaign for Fianna Fail and Kenny looking to claw back some of the ground that has been surrendered.

  • 20:08

    It is also a crucial night for Labour Party leader Joan Burton who has seen her party’s support freefall.

    The debate has been billed as a “do or die” event for her and the party.

    After some criticism of her performances in earlier debates, she has put in some steady media appearances over the past week.

    Supporters will be hopeful she can carve an identity for the party in the eyes of the public that is separate from its Coalition partner.

  • 20:16

    With all the talk of a potential coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael after Friday’s vote, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams will be out to emphasise what that could mean for Irish society.

    His deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said this week it would be a “nightmare scenario” for anyone who believes in equality.

  • 20:19

    My name is Colin Gleeson and I will be bringing you live updates from tonight’s debate, which will get underway at 9.35pm and will run for 90 minutes until 11.05pm.

    If you’d like to get involved, you can tweet me @ColinGleesonIT. The hash tag for the debate is #leadersdebate.

    The event, which takes place in RTÉ’s Donnybrook studios, will be moderated by Miriam O’Callaghan with no live studio audience.

  • 20:20
    I’ll bring you tweets and analysis from The Irish Times politics team as it comes.
  • 20:30
  • 20:41

    Tanaiste Joan Burton has said on her way in that she expects the debate to be "fair but tough".

    She added she was eager to use the debate to encourage people to vote for the Labour party.

  • 20:48
  • 20:56

    Last week’s penultimate leaders’ debate of the election saw the three smaller parties – the Social Democrats, Renua Ireland and Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit – come to the fore.

    The debate, moderated by broadcaster Claire Byrne, covered issues such as the economy, taxation, health, homelessness and housing, employment and crime and security.

    Byrne was widely credited for her performance in keeping the seven leaders in check. Tonight’s affair ought to be easier to handle for Miriam O’Callaghan with just the four leaders to grapple with.

  • 20:59

    Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has arrived at the RTE studios and has said the party is ready to lead the Government and that he wants to be Taoiseach.

    He added that he hopes the debate will be about “the issues”.

  • 21:01
  • 21:09

    Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who failed to turn up for TV3’s People’s Debate in his Mayo constituency this week, has arrived in Donnybrook and defended his often criticised participation record.

    He said he has taken part in more debates than any Taoiseach.

    Mr Kenny added the electorate is faced with a critical choice on Friday and that he hopes it will elect a stable Government.

  • 21:16
    The final Gerry Adams-shaped piece of the jigsaw has arrived and we are about twenty minutes from the start of the debate.
  • 21:17
  • 21:30
    We’ll be getting underway in the next five minutes.
  • 21:30
  • 21:39

    We’re underway at RTE and Miriam O’Callaghan is welcoming the four leaders to the stage.

    They are all standing quite close together on the podium. From left to right, it is Adams, Kenny, Martin and Burton.

    Here we go. This is the last time we will get to see the leaders of the four main parties going head to head before voting.

    Are you excited?

  • 21:43

    O’Callaghan starts by asking Kenny to reflect on the party’s ill advised ‘keep the recovery going’ slogan.

    The Taoiseach says he accepts that many people have not felt the recovery and that the challenge for FG is to bring the recovery to every family.

  • 21:46

    Martin is asked how the electorate can trusty the party after its role in the crisis.

    Martin echoes Michael D Higgins comments a number of weeks back about a “fair and decent society”.

    He says the party made mistakes and has learned from them.

    O’Callaghan says FF were the bus drivers that drove the country over the cliff.

    Martin slips the Banking Inquiry card out from up his sleeve and says it largely put paid to the suggestion that it was all FF’s fault.

  • 21:48

    Burton is talking about the efforts the Labour Party has made to reverse the cuts that were made during its time in Government.

    They are going to spend 4bn on social housing, she says.

  • 21:50

    It seems O’Callaghan wants to start off with all the leaders’ hot button issues.

    She wants to know about Adams’ past in the IRA and suggests the public can’t trust him.

    Adams tells her that he is trusted by the people of Louth and West Belfast.

    “Are you a fit person?” asks O’Callaghan again.

    “I have never tried to hide my association with the IRA,” he replies. “It is now history. It is gone. We have a peace process and we are working with our unionist partners.”

  • 21:51

    Adams adds that he will not draw a ministerial salary if elected.

    O’Callaghan is quizzing him on his grasp of the numbers, which he staunchly defends.

  • 21:52
  • 21:54

    We’re onto health.

    Martin says he has no difficulty in discussing his history in the Department of Health.

    He attacks FG’s record and cites the failure to introduce universal health care.

  • 21:55

    Martin denies there was a public spending crisis during his time in the department.

    O’Callaghan is challenging him and Martin says that she didn’t interrupt Adams.

  • 21:55
  • 21:56

    Adams is taking a leaf out of Kenny’s book and referencing a personal story from the campaign trail.

    He says he knows of a woman who had to wait 11 hours for an X-ray.

  • 21:58

    O’Callaghan wants one specific measure from Adams on health.

    He says that every child who has a serious ailment, disability or sickness will get a medical card.

    “That not a fundamental reform of the system,” says O’Callaghan.

    “That’s a huge reform of the system,” replies Adams.

  • 22:00

    Adams said the party would not place a cap on the consultants pay but would ask those earning over 100,000 euro to pay an extra seven cent on every euro.

    He then asks O’Callaghan whether she earns more than 100,000.

    She says calmly: “I do.”

    Adams tells her that she should have declared that.

    O’Callaghan looks a bit confused.

  • 22:02
    There’s a reference to Mairia Cahill, who has been elected to the Seanad, and Adams drops the ball somewhat by asking:  "Who is Senator Cahill?"
  • 22:02
  • 22:03

    Kenny is being grilled on universal health insurance.

    He says the party’s priority is universal healthcare rather than universal insurance.

    How ambitious.

  • 22:04
  • 22:09

    Burton has gone on the attack again and unsurprisingly it’s Adams at the receiving end.

    “Can I say about Gerry Adams,” she says. “He has some cheek lecturing the rest of us about private health insurance when he can jet off to the United States.”

    She’s off on a roll and wants to know if his “good republican friend” paid for it.

    "What cloud cuckoo land do you live on?" she continues.

    “Let him answer that to be fair,” interjects O’Callaghan.

    “I’ve told you this a million times,” says an exasperated looking Adams. “A friend of mine paid for an operation that at the time was not available on the island of Ireland. The taxpayer didn’t pay for it.”

  • 22:11

    We’ve moved on to tax.

    O’Callaghan wants to know where the fairness is when the abolishment of the USC will benefit the better off more.

    Kenny defends the figures. O’Callaghan tells him: “But I used your own calculator on your website.”

  • 22:12
  • 22:14

    Everybody earning below 100,000 euro will be better off under Sinn Fein, according to Adams.

    Adams is harping on a bit and O’Callaghan has had enough.

    “Gerry, stop talking,” she instructs.

  • 22:14
  • 22:16

    Burton says it’s a very carefully prepared tax plan that is being put forward by the Labour Party.

    Martin says SF’s tax policy will kill jobs and that it has been hidden during most of the campaign.

  • 22:17

    “How can a party that cut the minimum wage talk about fairness?” O’Callaghan asks Martin.

    “Our party introduced the minimum wage and made it the second highest in Europe at the time,” he replies.

  • 22:17
  • 22:22

    Burton really doesn’t like Adams.

    Now she’s onto “the extraordinary spectacle” a couple of weeks ago of Adams calling Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy “a good republican” despite his conviction for tax offences.

  • 22:26

    We’ve gone to a break now.

    One of the podiums has been creaking quite loudly during the debate so hopefully they can sort that out before we’re back.

  • 22:27
  • 22:32

    We’re back underway and discussing the homelessness and housing issue.

    O’Callaghan says the Government’s legacy on this issue is “damning”.

    Burton is querying O’Callaghan’s figures and says they are “ratcheting up” the building of social housing.

  • 22:34

    Burton says the 4bn project is “the biggest social housing plan in history”.

    “Isn’t it too late,” O’Callaghan wants to know. “It’s the end of a five year Government. A record number of families have fallen into homelessness.”

    “And last year 1,000 families left homelessness,” replies Burton.

  • 22:34
  • 22:36
    Martin says it is “sickening” that homeless people have to listen to the “keep the recovery going” slogan.
  • 22:39

    Martin says Fianna Fail cannot be blamed for everything and that the homelessness crisis is a damning indictment of the Government's legacy.

    He says it is time for the Coalition to take their heads out of the sand because the problem is getting worse by the day.

    He adds it is time for rent supplement to be increased.

  • 22:40
  • 22:43

    On the 20 per cent deposit needed for a mortgage, Burton is talking about the importance of an independent Central Bank and says: “I’m not sure Gerry appreciates that”.

    “We need a strongly independent Central Bank,” she adds.

    Kenny on the other hand says he wants the Bank to look at how they might ease the burden on young couples.

  • 22:44
  • 22:45

    Kenny says the Central’s Bank’s “intention was right but the timing was wrong”, and he hopes it will be changed.

    So much for no political interference.

  • 22:48

    O’Callaghan is asking Kenny about allowing Nama to sell distressed property to vulture funds.

    Kenny doesn’t really deal with the question and Martin interjects to say the Government has adopted a “laissez faire approach to the banks and allow them to rip off the public”.

  • 22:48
  • 22:54

    Cronyism is the next topic.

    Burton is attacking Fianna Fail and says the party appointed Tiarnan O’Mahoney as chairman of the Irish Pensions’ Fund.

    O’Mahoney is a former Anglo Irish Bank official who was convicted last year for hiding accounts.

    “Yer man from Anglo Irish Bank,” says Burton in case nobody knows.

    “Micheal has amnesia,” she adds.

  • 22:57

    O’Callaghan has told Kenny he “out-Bertied Bertie”.

    Classic line.

  • 22:57
  • 22:59

    Adams tells O’Callaghan that she has a scoop.

    He says it’s the first time the Kenny has admitted he appointed John McNulty to the board of IMMA.

    We’ll have to listen back carefully on that one.

  • 23:02

    O’Callaghan has brought up climate change.

    The Greens will be dropping their biscuits into their cups of tea.

    “Make no mistake about it - for our children and our grandchildren - we must address climate change,” says Burton.

  • 23:03
    On the McNulty issue, Kenny confirmed he made the decision, and that it was one he "shouldn't have made".
  • 23:04
  • 23:05
    They’re talking about broadband now even Burton cracks a smile when Martin makes a remark about “whingers”.
  • 23:08

    We’re on to the leaders’ biggest regrets in public life.

    Should be interesting.

    Martin humbly acknowledges that he regrets “being part of the consensus” in the mid 2000s that didn’t cry stop and which led to the crisis.

  • 23:14

    I’m afraid the rest of them didn’t have the same magnanimity and have used the question to showcase how they great they are.

    Burton says she regrets the “slow pace of change” she was faced with when she left the private sector and went into public life.

    “You come in thinking you can turn things around quite quickly,” she says. “I saw an awful lot of waste and a coterie of people abusing the system. I’ve managed to change a lot of that.”

    Fair play to her.

    Kenny says he has “a number” of regrets but again just says they mainly centre around not being able to do all the great things he’s done a little sooner.

    “Maybe having been able to do things a little earlier, but things didn’t come my way,” he waxes lyrical.

    He says he wished he could have moved earlier to deal with the “tears of the Magdalen women, those affected in Priory Hall, and the many hundreds of thousands of people affected by the same sex marriage referendum”.

    Burton will be miffed he mentioned that.

    Adams has caught on and says his biggest regret is that his crowning achievement – the peace process – didn’t happen sooner.

    “I never gave up it without any support from the establishment,” he says.

    That doesn’t count as a regret Gerry.

  • 23:17

    That brings to an end tonight’s debate.

    Now for the post-mortem.

  • 23:21

    On the McNulty issue, we’ve dug up this report which shows Kenny accepted responsibility for the matter almost 18 months ago.

    So no scoop for Miriam.

  • 23:28
  • 23:31

    Now that we’ve had time to catch our breath, we can look at some of what else was said in the debate.

    Kenny said Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin has tried to deceive people into believing he was a better Minister for Health than Leo Varadkar.

    The Taosieach said Mr Varadkar had exposed Mr Martin.

  • 23:34
  • 23:35
    On Adams’ apparently not knowing who “Senator Cahill” was during the debate, he has said he did not mean to be disrespectful towards her and didn’t hear what the Taoiseach had said.
  • 23:36
  • 23:39

    There is still some confusion around the McNulty affair.

    People are pointing out that Kenny accepted responsibility and apologised, but never actually admitted to doing it.

    You decide.

  • 23:46
  • 23:53

    Harry McGee has compiled a list of “five takeaways” from the debate which you can see here.

    Among his observations are that all four leaders used a tactic whereby they were asked a question and "within a millisecond" were giving an answer that bore no relation to it.

  • 00:00
    With that, we’ll bring the live blog to a close. Thanks for your company and see irishtimes.com for the latest reaction to the debate, and all of the General Election coverage over the coming days.