In the largest television debate so far of the general election campaign, seven party leaders faced each other in a wide ranging debate on RTÉ's Claire Byrne Live.

As well as questions from the moderator Claire Byrne, the seven party leaders faced questions from a 300-strong audience at NUI Galway.

The audience members were independently selected by RED C Research polling company.

The issues raised included housing, the re-opening of closed rural garda stations, tax and calls for a reduction in the national suckler herd.

There was also a discussion about potential coalition partners following the election.

Coalition partners

Claire Byrne opened the discussion by asking the party leaders about potential partners in a coalition government after the election on 8 February.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was the first to speak.

She said there is something "incredibly arrogant and obnoxious" that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can disregard her party from a coalition government.

Mary Lou McDonald said "Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had it all their own way for almost a century and they don't want to let an alternative in."

Leo Varadkar said he hopes people will decide that Fine Gael should be the largest party, insisting again that he would not enter a coalition with Sinn Féin.

He said it wasn't anything personal but rather based on policies and principles.

Mr Varadkar said the party was "soft on crime and high on taxes" given their position on the Special Criminal Court and proposals to increase taxes on business and on incomes.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin accused Sinn Féin of being "extremely arrogant" suggesting that other parties owe them a place in power.

"We don’t, we’re under no obligation to allow Sinn Féin into government," he added.

Brendan Howlin said the Labour Party is the party of doers.

He said he has asked people who vote for Labour to transfer votes to other left leaning parties in a bid to form a 'progressive' government.

Mr Howlin said there's "very little we disagree on" and he said if they had a critical mass, they could form a 'progressive' government.

The leader of Solidarity-People Before Profit Richard Boyd Barrett said he would "like to see a left government " but he said "there is a very bitter taste in people’s mouths" from the last time Labour was in government.

He said "many of the promises they made, they turned on" and he said Labour "imposed crippling austerity."

The Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said his party has "40 years record of working with everyone as best we can."

He said he "it behoves us to sit down and work with" other parties if that’s how the people vote.

"You are not in politics to just hold onto your seat, you are there to try to improve people’s quality of life," he added.

The co-leader of the Social Democrats Roísín Shortall said she doesn’t believe "any politician has the right to dictate who should be in government or to veto any party."

She said there is a responsibility on all parties to work together to ensure they can achieve the best possible deal for the public.

 "It’s wrong to say, we won’t work with this person, or we won’t work with that party," she added.


The first audience question related to housing.

Micheál Martin said Fianna Fáil "will build 50,000 affordable houses on State land", which he said will be built by local authorities.

He said "nothing has happened in terms of building affordable housing on State land" over the last four years.

Labour's Brendan Howlin said "the solution is to build on the land the public own" and he said there is a need to "build communities as well as houses."

He said "we have enough public land to build at least 80,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years."

Mr Howlin also said "there is no answer but to freeze rents until we address the supply problem."

On people owning their own home, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar said "I want that to be a possibility for everyone" through supply and improving and growing the Help to Buy scheme.

He said since he became Taoiseach, 50,000 new homes have been built in Ireland.

Mr Varadkar said his party "are the ones who are delivering supply" but he said "it's not enough."

Eamon Ryan said the Green Party would introduce a cost-rental model and he said "we have to get back control of land."

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the country is "facing an emergency" in terms of housing and she said "the first thing an incoming government needs to do is to accept this is an emergency."

She said "we need 100,000 public houses - a mix of affordable, council and cost rental."

"We need initiatives that will bring the cost of housing down. We need to cut rents and freeze rents."

Róisín Shortall, the co-leader of the Social Democrats, said "people who have a decent job, can't afford a decent house, which is a disgrace."

She said there needs to be "large scale development of affordable houses."

Mary Lou McDonald also accused Micheál Martin of wanting to distance himself from "the disaster of the outgoing government's housing policy," of which she claimed he was the co-author.

You allowed "a crisis to deepen and deepen," she added.

The leader of Solidarity-People Before Profit Richard Boyd Barrett said a stigma has been created around social housing.

He said  both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have voted against Solidarity/PBP motions in the Dáil aimed at tackling the housing issue.

Rural Garda stations

In response to an audience question on re-opening closed rural Garda stations, Micheál Martin said Fianna Fáil is more interested in restoring community gardaí.

He said there is a need to "strengthen the community presence of gardai."

The Labour Party's Brendan Howlin said "it's not simply about having Garda checkpoints, it's about having gardaí in the community" who know the people there.

On the use of drugs, Eamon Ryan said the Green Party believe the approach should be health-based, rather than a criminal justice based system.

The Fine Gael leader said his party is moving towards a health and education-based approach, with a focus on telling people about the health risks and how they are fuelling crime by buying drugs.

Leo Varadkar also said Fine Gael is increasing the number of gardai, but he said they don't intend to reopen any closed rural Garda stations "but we won't close anymore."

And he committed to recruiting an extra 700 gardaí every year.

Solidarity-People Before Profit's Richard Boyd Barrett said "we can't police our way out of the rising level of crime, I don't think that's the answer."

Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald said "we need to recruit at a rate of 800 per annum and she said "we have to do everything that we can to give our young people alternatives to drugs."

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said "community policing should be the centre piece of policing," but she said "Garda numbers have been cut by 40% over the last 9 years."


The leaders were asked if they support a call to reduce the national suckler herd.

Eamon Ryan said he agreed that the herd needs to be reduced by over 50%.

He said "we will have a smaller suckler herd" but he said the Green Party also wants to protect the family farm and ensure that farmers incomes increase by over 50% by moving to a different model.

Leo Vardakar said Fine Gael "doesn't support reducing the national herd" and he said "there are others ways to reduce agricultural emissions."

He said "often farmers feel they are being climate-shamed, and I believe that is wrong."

Mary Lou McDonald said Sinn Féin wants to set up a commission on the Irish family farm.

Richard Boyd Barrett said Solidarity-People Before Profit believed the national herd should be cut by 53%.

He said the "ever expanding herd is actually reducing prices and hurting farmers."

Fianna Fáil's Micheal Martin said "we do need to develop alternative income streams for farmers."

Brendan Howlin of Labour said "we all see climate change as a real and present danger" and he said we need to "look at the issue of family farming and how we operate in this country."

The Social Democrat's Róisín Shortall said "it is misleading farmers to pretend that it's possible to continue producing beef at the level that we are doing at the moment."

She said farmers should be supported to diversify.