The Claire Byrne Live Debate (11 Days To Election)

I decided not to take in the Virgin Media debate last week, and I won’t be watching the RTE equivalent closer to polling day, because I simply cannot countenance an hour or more of Leo Varadkar and Michael Martin insisting the other one is more responsible for the nations problems (when the answer is that they are both responsible). Seeing as how Fianna Fail propped up the government, and will be happy to be propped up in turn if it comes to it, it’s like having Leo Varadkar debate one of his ministers.

So the debate last night on Claire Byrne Live is, as far as I am concerned, the only one worth watching in this campaign, at least in terms of major hustings. Below are my thoughts on how it went for the candidates as the debate progressed, with a final summary underneath it all.

Here representing Ireland’s seven biggest political parties are Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael), Michael Martin (Fianna Fail), Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Fein), Brendan Howlin (Labour), Richard Boyd Barrett (Solidarity-People Before Profit), Eamon Ryan (the Greens) and Rosin Shortall (Social Democrats).

The first topic is on potential coalition options, with a particular focus on Sinn Fein, naturally. This is a piece of cake for McDonald, who says she will talk to anyone, but parties who rule them out before the vote are arrogant. Varadkar says Fine Gael are too different to Sinn Fein politically to contemplate coalition, citing positions on the Special Criminal Court and taxes on businesses. McDonald bites back, saying Fine Gael/Fianna Fail are trying to prevent any kind of alternative from emerging. She dodges questions on the Special Criminal Court though. Martin claims Sinn Fein are arrogant to assume they are owed a place in government, and that the “old provos” won’t allow Sinn Fein to vote for things like the Special Criminal Court.

The Irish Times story on the Sinn Fein pledge to follow the dictates of the Ard Chomhairle comes up: McDonald dismisses it as making a bogeyman out of an open, democratic process, and does fine. Howlin talks about his efforts to craft a left voting block with the Greens and Soc Dems. Rambles a bit when asked if he’s willing to go through the trauma of government again. Barrett, when asked if he would like to be part of such arrangement, gives a fairly scathing “No”. Says Solidarity-People Before Profit will evaluate potential partners on their willingness to prop up Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. Rejects the accusation of being doomed to perpetual opposition. Strong enough on an awkward question.

Ryan goes straight onto the climate change issue, and implies it’s too important to be automatically ruling out any coalition partner. Not unreasonable. Says being a TD without seeking government authority is pointless, which is fair. Shortall says no one should have the right to veto any coalition partner outright, and TD’s are obligated to try and work together. Idealistic, but not incorrect. Martin claims Fianna Fail was the only party in 2016 that was willing to “step up to the plate” of allowing a functioning government. Whatever you say.

First audience question: What will you do to help the “younger generation” afford a house? Martin says he’ll build lots of housing quickly, gets annoyed when Byrne cuts him off. Not a great look. Claims Fianna Fail “forced ” Fine Gael to up their commitment to housing. Uh huh. Howlin goes on the attack against Fianna Fail’s long-standing record on gutting local authorities housing departments. Seems desperate to be relevant. Varadkar goes back to supply and improving help to buy schemes. Sounds confident, comfortable with the figures, claims he can continue to double housing supply. Ryan goes to the Greens’ “cost rental” plan, has to try and explain it very quickly, not sure he did so effectively. Byrne asks who would own property built by private developers on public land. Ryan says the public. Uh huh. Byrne asks where all these builders are, and Barrett answers brilliantly “Building hotels”. Some bickering between Varadkar and Martin, Varadkar lets Martin rant a bit, probably deliberately.

McDonald says an emergency should be declared on the topic, and a record number of houses should be built. Happily, she’s the first person to mention renters, and doubles down on Sinn Fein’s commitment to a rent freeze. Ignores Byrne’s quip about where returning builders are going to live. Howlin jumps to the issue of homelessness, seems desperate to grab the initiative, but somehow gets a round of applause for saying nothing. Shortall is asked about the negatives of a rent freeze, turns the question to unused public land, not a good swerve really. Claims Fine Gael’s ideology is preventing progress on the issue. Varadkar rejects this, claims his party has been increasing supply again. Says any pledge for more housing will need to paid for, and only Fine Gael are trustworthy. He and Shortall begin bickering childishly.

Barrett gets a fully justified huge round of applause when bringing up Fianna Fail/Fine Gael/Labour’s record of NAMA and selling property off to vulture funds. Says public owned banks are racketeering off helpless mortgage holders. Sounds very impassioned and very strong. Howlin’s subsequent interjection is more bland stuff along he lines of “We will build XXX thousand houses” and sounds very Johnny-come-lately. Byrne gets a round of applause when ordering people to stop talking over McDonald. The Sinn Fein leader criticises government and Fianna Fail closeness to vulture funds, banks and landlords. Ryan criticises “auction politics”, and I think he’s right in describing this section as that. Says it can’t just be building housing, and that transport links and amenities must be thought of. Yes, correct.

Martin says local authorities must be giving more power to progress things on their own. McDonald jumps in, and really gives it both barrels to Martin by tying Fianna Fail to Fine Gael’s policies over the last three years, another round of applause. Martin brings up the collapse of Stormont as an example of Sinn Fein’s recklessness in comparison to Fianna Fail’s approach to maintaining government stability in the face of Brexit. McDonald isn’t having any of it, essentially suggesting that Brexit isn’t enough to justify the growing homelessness crisis. McDonald looked very strong here, Martin very weak. Varadkar says only Fine Gael has a track record to trust on the issue. Martin not one bit happy with that. Barrett brings up Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s opposition to Solidarity legislation to enshrine rights to housing. Strong again.

A new question: Are you going to reverse the decision to close rural Garda stations? Martin says they will do so if it is feasible, more interested in restoration of community policing. Goes off on a tangent on other aspects of Fianna Fail’s policing policy. Howlin tries to play up Labour’s initiatives on Garda while in government, wrong approach to take. Everyone talking about Drogheda, which has nothing to do with the question asked. Ryan starts talking about general Garda reform, commissioners, technology. Byrne encouraging the shift from the question by moving onto drug legalisation. Ryan says we need to treat addiction as opposed to a purely criminal approach. Getting pushed hard by Byrne on this, doesn’t look too comfortable, getting very worked up.

Varadar agrees that the current system encourages a path of criminality, and Fine Gael will change this. Won’t close any more stations, he claims. Claims a visible Garda presence is better than manned stations. Only Fine Gael can create an economy that can provide this. Alright. Barrett, after a slightly snide framing of the question from Byrne, says we can’t police our way out of a rise in crime. Says legalising drugs will help undercut organised crime. Goes further and says cuts to drug task forces and the like have been a disaster.

McDonald gives examples of closed or part-time stations in her own constituencies, but says re-opening stations is pointless without Garda being properly supplied, or other changes like civilianising. The reasonable point is made that all of McDonald’s ideas are contained in the Fine Gael manifesto. Shortall re-iterates how important community policing is, and that this has been gutted under Fine Gael. Also parrots line on properly supplying Garda. Varadkar gets testy, says there were cuts to community policing when Shortall was in charge of it. Shortall coming off very defensive. Martin criticises government record on policing generally, Varadkar rejects this. Hmm.

After a break, the next question is: What are government plans for tax for people in the middle-income bracket? Howlin says Labour’s priority is to solve social crises, and they won’t promise tax cuts, but will index tax rates. Says its the moral thing to do, and anyone who says anything else is presenting a con job. Varadkar outlines his proposed tax cuts, like removing USC for those earning under 20k per annum, and adapting the tax bands to give people a break, lifting the highest band threshold to 50k. Rejects the claim these plans will increase inequality in society. Back to “We are the ones to trust on the economy”. Turning into a bit of an echo chamber.

Byrne asks if its true that Irish people like being bribed with their own money? Varadkar doesn’t think so. Martin brings up Fine Gael’s failure to abolish USC. Varadkar brings up Brexit as a defence. Byrne calls Martin on the hypocrisy of calling for a tax cut and treating Brexit as a monumental crisis. Martin doesn’t have an answer. Back to Fianna Fail’s traditional “We will fix everything and cut taxes” rhetoric, and does not sound convincing. Bickering back and forth with Varadkar a bit.

McDonald brings up Fianna Fail’s stewardship  during the crash and Fine Gael’s disaster with the children’s hospital, another round of applause. Pivots the question to pensions, doesn’t sound very authentic, and ignores comments on Sinn Fein’s record in the north on the issue. Insists its possible to move the pension age back to 65. Ryan responds to the idea of what to cut if the bottom drops out of the economy, by saying that the fiction of other parties’ tax cuts could not be borne. Varadkar back to “Trust us with the economy”, real broken record now.

Shortall says pre-election promises are damaging to the discourse, and defends Ireland’s progressive tax system. Says services are more important that promising cuts to this, that, or the other tax. Bickering from numerous people, all very tiresome. Barrett is asked where they would get the money for their proposals: says they will tax profits from major companies, that are currently under-taxed. Simplistic, but not unfair. Martin plays up Ireland as a pro-business nation, and implies that the hard-left’s plans are fantasy.

McDonald claims the banks pay no tax, Varadkar disagrees, bringing up non-corporate tax ways of getting money off banks. I do think that McDonald’s efforts to come across as impassioned do sometimes seem more like obnoxious. Now talking over an annoyed Martin. He says Ireland has to remain an export-friendly nation. Howlin insists people would prefer to solve the social problems of the country than get a measly return on taxes. Honest, but of course it will not be popular. Ryan says we should focus on widening the tax base, such as taxing pollution. Seems a little rattled to me.

Varadkar again strongly defends Fine Gael’s record. Says they won’t be able to go ahead with tax cuts in the event of a disastrous Brexit, claims other parties aren’t properly costing their plans. He criticises Martin for just publishing their costings in the last 90 minutes. Martin rejects this, claiming Fianna Fail have done more costings than Fine Gael. Yawn. McDonald says the Department of Finance have confirmed that the Sinn Fein plans can be delivered. Barrett points out that pensioners have already made their contributions, and shouldn’t be considered to be leeches. Shortall reiterates the Social Democrats’ commitment to solving social issues, Howlin very obnoxiously tries to interrupt.

A new question: What are the representatives’ opinions on cattle herd reduction? Ryan pumped up on this, “damn right” the Greens’ time has come. But does dodge the question a bit, before Byrne brings him back to it. Confirms the Greens would have a smaller sucker herd. Very impassioned, he’s been waiting for this, keen to emphasise the Greens’ plans to help farmers. Sounds good. Varadkar does not support reduction of herds, says farmers are being “climate-shamed”, give me a break. Claims every party has “nutters” to some laughs, spare me. McDonald won’t reduce the herd, won’t create a carbon tax, thinks the problem is a cartel in the Irish beef industry. Ryan very critical of this, rightfully so. Interesting to note that everybody on the stage bar Howlin comes from an urban constituency.

Anyway, Barrett says they need to guarantee prices on beef, give more support to small farmers by taxing bigger ones. Martin thinks our dairy industry is one of the best in terms of climate change, gets annoyed when challenged on that. Some nonsense being talked by nearly everyone here. Howlin says that the response to climate change must be done in concert. More idealistic claims that everyone can be kept happy somehow. Shortall supports a carbon tax, but exemptions for low-incomes are inadequate. Says its misleading for farmers to claim things can continue as they are. Sounds reasonable and fair.

After another break, we finish with individual closing statements.

Ryan says we can rise to the challenge presented by climate change. Says we should measure progress by the quality of our lives. Rehearsed, but not a bad pitch.

Howlin offers Labour as an alternative to the two main parties. Says they will invest in social issues, and back a fairer Ireland. Bit meh, but he was meh all night.

Varadkar says we’ve heard a lot of promises, and they’ll all cost money. Only Fine Gael can create the economy we need to make those promises a reality. Very rehearsed, but effective nonetheless.

Martin says we can’t afford to have the same people in charge. We need action on so many issues, and we can only get that from a new government, Weirdly stuttered a bit. Not so great.

Barrett says we have an historic opportunity to leave behind the two main parties. Says his group has created the mood for change, and they act and talk when others don’t. Confident, genuine, impressive.

Shortall briefly outlines some of the issues facing us, and says it is no way to live. But there are solutions if we commit to social democracy. Not bad, if a bit meandering.

McDonald says you have the right to a decent life. Old politics has failed, and an alternative is now available. Confident, powerful.

It wasn’t a great debate, but when are they? You long for something more focused, more stringently moderated, where candidates aren’t allowed to jump from topic to topic or hog the spotlight as much as they do. This is really about how the candidates presented themselves and whether they will get some votes out of that presentation, or whether they will lose them.

Leo Varadkar did OK. He sounded calm, confident and knowledgeable when giving the chance to speak, but did repeat the same talking point over and over again on the economy. He refused to get drawn into much in the way of arguments, save with Shortall briefly, but at the same time failed to really get at any of his opponents. This is treading water territory.

Michael Martin had a not so great night. He was the subject of a lot of criticism from all quarters, and seemed easily irritable, betraying the lie behind the smiley facade he has attempted to adopt throughout the campaign. McDonald especially managed to land a few blows.

Mary Lou McDonald came across as a bit obnoxious at times, as she frequently does, but made the most of her time to hit out at Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, landing more effectively on Martin. Sure to gain a few votes off of this.

Brendan Howlin is a man that will not be Labour leader much longer on the basis of this kind of wearisome contribution. Real “also in attendance” feeling, as he struggled to make his points as well as others.

Richard Boyd Barrett, as he usually tends to be, came across very well. There is a genuineness about him and a common-sense approach to Ireland’s problems, and he has the wherewithal to stay out of the bickering. Not sure how much it will help Solidarity-People Before Profit, but it can’t hurt.

Eamon Ryan had a few big moments, especially when the climate came up, but frequently seemed to be at a loose end, unused to this kind of environment. It was almost like he was nervous of limited opportunities to make his mark. This won’t help the Greens too much.

Roisin Shortall didn’t have as much of an impact as I would have hoped, but what impact she did have was worthwhile. She comes across quite well, but might benefit from a bit more passion when she tries to get outline her ideas. Still, think she did the Social Democrats a favour tonight.

So I guess I would rank them as follows: Barrett, McDonald, Shortall, Varadkar, Ryan, Martin, Howlin. Whether this will end up really mattering is anyone’s guess.

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