Housing, tax, rural crime and the formation of a coalition government dominated the election debate on RTÉ's Claire Byrne Live.

It was the biggest Election 2020 leaders' debate of the campaign so far, which took place in NUI Galway.

The two-hour live debate included Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin, Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald, Labour’s Brendan Howlin, Richard Boyd Barrett of Solidarity/People Before Profit, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall.

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

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

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The formation of a coalition government was brought up at the beginning of the debate, with Ms McDonald responding to statements from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that they would not enter a coalition government with her party.

"There is something incredibly arrogant, obvious even, when leaders of other parties believe that we can be disregarded," she said.

"It is also deeply hypocritical of course because those same party leaders go up and warmly shake the hand of Sinn Féin ministers in government in the North.

"At the end of the election I will speak to everybody, I will listen to everybody and my objective will be to deliver a republican programme for government."

Mr Varadkar responded by saying he hopes the people will return Fine Gael as the biggest party.

He said: "It isn't anything personal, it is entirely based on policy and principles and the reason why my party wouldn't be in a position to form a coalition with Sinn Féin is that in our view Sinn Féin is soft on crime and high on taxes."

Mr Martin said that Sinn Féin were being "extremely arrogant" in thinking that Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael owe them the opportunity to get into power.

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said: "After this election we could have a block of 25 TDs that would include the Social Democrats and People Before Profit.

"There is very little we disagree on, if we had critical mass we could form a progressive government."

Mr Howlin said he would not rule any party out of coalition. "I never said I would not sit down with anybody - that would be arrogant," he said.

People Before Profit candidate Richard Boyd-Barrett said the Labour Party imposed "crippling austerity" on the Irish people the last time they were in a coalition government with Fine Gael.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the future of politics and society will be different but it will require "radical change".

Mr Ryan said he would not rule out working with any particular party as every party has a duty to deal with the "climate crisis".

Social Democrats leader Roísín Shortall said no-one had the right to veto who they will or will not go into government with.

She said: "There is a responsibility on all government parties to work together to address the huge societal issues we face and reach solutions to the health service, the housing crisis and climate change.

"It is wrong to say we will not work with this person or that person."


The housing crisis was debated after a member of the audience asked how the various parties would help someone own a home.

Mr Varadkar said that he wanted home ownership to be a possibility for everyone and that it can be done by increasing housing supply.

Mr Martin described the level of house building in the last few years under the Fine Gael government as "insufficient".

Ms McDonald said that the incoming government will have to declare a "housing emergency", adding that the country needs 100,000 homes that would see a mix of social and affordable housing.

Mr Howlin and Ms Shortall both called for rents to be frozen across Ireland.

Meanwhile, Mr Boyd Barrett said that there is a "stigma" surrounding social housing and there was an ideological aversion to building social housing on a large scale.

Rural garda stations

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

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

Mr Howlin said that "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, Mr 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.

Mr Varadkar also said Fine Gael is increasing the number of gardaí, but he said they do not intend to reopen any closed rural garda stations "but we won't close anymore". He committed to recruiting an extra 700 gardaí every year.

Mr Boyd Barrett said: "We can't police our way out of the rising level of crime, I don't think that's the answer."

Ms 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".

Ms Shortall said "community policing should be the centrepiece of policing", but she said "garda numbers have been cut by 40% over the last nine years".


Another member of the audience questioned the party leaders about middle income earners paying the higher rate of tax.

Mr Varadkar said workers should not have to pay the higher rate of tax at €40,000 and his party will raise the threshold to €50,000 if re-elected.

Mr Howlin said tax cuts are not the way to go.

"We will not promise tax cuts. Many people will prefer to solve the homelessness and health crisis that is going on. It is the right and moral thing to do."

Mr Martin said his party will reduce the rate of Universal Social Charge (USC) workers have to pay on their earnings.

Ms McDonald said she will exempt anyone who earns €30,000 or less from paying the USC.

She accused Mr Martin of being the person who "ruined the economy" while Mr Varadkar "produced the most expensive hospital in the world".

Mr Martin said the tax proposals being put forward by Sinn Féin are "anathema" to indigenous Irish companies, the self-employed and small business owners.

"Ireland is an export-driven economy that needs encouragement and support," he said.

Mr Ryan said some tax revenues are needed to pay for pension, for carers and infrastructure for our future. He added that Fine Gael are not the only ones pledging tax cuts.

Ms Shortall said if we go down the route proposed by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael on tax cuts, the tax system would be less fair.

Mr Boyd Barrett criticised Ireland's corporate tax regime and said large corporations should pay their share of tax.

"Starbucks, Kennedy Wilson and IRES REIT pay less than 1% tax - that is the secret of the Irish economy," he said.

Climate crisis

Another audience member asked the panel what their plans were regarding the proposed reduction in the national suckler herd.

Mr Ryan said the biodiversity and climate emergency "is the crisis of our lifetime" and needs to be tackled as Ireland's economy relies heavily on agriculture.

"We will have to have smaller suckler herds and we need to reduce intensive systems of farming," he said.

"It is not about farmers versus greens - I will sit down and talk to all of them as farmers are not earning a fair price."

Mr Varadkar said Fine Gael would not reduce the national suckler herd and that farmers are "often climate shamed".

Asked about comments by a Fine Gael colleague who said some Green Party members are "nutters", he replied: "Some of the members of my own party are nutters," which drew applause and laughter from the audience.

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

Mr 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".

Mr Martin said: "We do need to develop alternative income streams for farmers."

Mr 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".

Ms 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.