The leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin took part in a heated election debate on RTÉ's Prime Time, with the housing crisis, a coalition government, health and tax under the spotlight.

Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald made their final pitch to sway undecided voters before the General Election on Saturday.

The Fine Gael leader reiterated that he would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin, accusing them of being soft on crime.

Mr Varadkar said that not only was he concerned about Sinn Féin's past, but he also had concerns about the party's present and future.

Ms McDonald responded that this was a "clarion call of desperation", and that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil did not want any new ideas, new people or new energy in government.

She said people are recognising her party as an alternative that stands up for the interests of the people.

When asked about the non-jury Special Criminal Court, she asserted that she was for the courts and for special powers.

Mr Varadkar accused her of not giving a straight answer.

Read more:

As it happened - Leaders' debate on RTÉ Prime Time 
'Change' to the fore as several punches landed in debate

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When asked about voters having a thirst for change, Mr Varadkar said that all change "is not change for the better".

Urging voters to stick with his party, he cited Brexit and Donald Trump as examples of bad change, as he cautioned against support for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

Mr Varadkar insisted his government had delivered real change in terms of social reform, constitutional change, economic improvements and navigating the country through Brexit.

Mr Martin said that he has brought about change in various departments while serving as a minister. He also insisted that his party had credible plans to transform public service delivery.

He said: "And what we want to do now in terms of health, for example, is bring about real immediate, urgent change in terms of getting patients off waiting lists, in terms of hiring more health professionals, in terms of renewal of equipment in hospitals and, above all, in terms of home care hours - about five million extra."


The three leaders were also questioned on housing, rents and homelessness.

Ms McDonald said that the housing situation was a "social and economic catastrophe", and that political will was needed to deal with the crisis. She said that plans by her party, which were announced in their election manifesto, to build 100,000 homes in five years were "credible".

Mr Martin said that there has been very little impact on homelessness and affordable homes over the last few years by the government.

He had an "imaginative and innovative" platform on revitalising the construction industry, adding that there is a crisis and action was needed.

Mr Varadkar said that even though what has been done is not enough, efforts to deal with the issues were beginning to work following two years of investment.

He also said that the year before he became Taoiseach, fewer than 10,000 homes were built in Ireland, but last year that figure rose to 21,500.

He challenged Sinn Féin on its record in tackling homelessness in Northern Ireland, saying that there were 20,000 homeless people there. Ms McDonald denied the claim.


When asked about what he was going to do to reduce hospital waiting times this year, the Fine Gael leader defended his party's track record in health, citing financial restrictions.

He said that progress in areas such as emergency department overcrowding was not enough, and that Sláintecare was a plan that all parties signed up to.

"It may be a ten-year plan, but it is happening now," he said.

However, Mr Martin accused Fine Gael of delaying the implementation of the Sláintecare plan.

He said that his party was promising to "urgently" deal with hospital waiting lists and double the National Treatment Purchase Fund.

Ms McDonald said that this election is happening because of the government’s "failure" in health policy. When asked why her party was promising fewer hospital beds, nurses and midwives than others, she said that it was not.

She said that Sinn Féin has identified the capacity that is needed in the system and has "costed it accordingly".


On taxation, Ms McDonald defended her party's policy to get rid of the Local Property Tax because she said Sinn Féin does not believe in a tax on the family home.

She said there is a better way to capture wealth and that was through a wealth tax.

Mr Varadkar said that Sinn Féin's proposal of higher tax rates is too high and he wants to do more for middle income earners.

He said that putting Mr Martin back in charge of the economy would be like asking John Delaney to run the FAI again in nine years' time.

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Meanwhile, the Fianna Fáil leader attacked Sinn Fein's proposals on taxation, saying they do not add up.

He said investment is mobile and people are not going to hang around to face high tax rates from Sinn Féin.

Paul Quinn

The Sinn Féin leader was asked about the death of 21-year-old Paul Quinn, who was murdered in October 2007, and a request from his mother for an apology from Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy.

Miriam O'Callaghan read a comment that Mr Murphy gave to the BBC in November 2007, when he said that Mr Quinn was involved in smuggling and criminality.

Ms McDonald said that she spoke to Mr Murphy and he is aware that his comments caused hurt to the Quinn family. She said that he apologises and withdraws the remarks and will speak to the Quinn family.

Ms McDonald acknowledged that in an RTÉ interview on Monday evening, she told Bryan Dobson that Mr Murphy was "very clear that he never said that. That is not his view". 

She said that "my recollection was that he had not been as explicit as that". 

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Retirement age

The party leaders were asked questions on the retirement age, and Mr Martin said that there was a lot of worry about whether people who reached the age of 65 would be left without a pension due to official reforms.

He said he came to this conclusion before the election campaign started, and that there is a lot of worry out there at the moment.

Mr Varadkar said that his party had listened to what people have said on the issue, and if it is re-elected to office it will amend legislation so people who are 65 do not have to sign on for social welfare.

When asked about demographics and the potential of inadequate pensions in the future, Ms McDonald said that Sinn Féin is the only party saying people have an entitlement to their pension if they retire at 65.

Dara Murphy and Votegate

Mr Varadkar was asked about former Cork TD Dara Murphy and his Dáil attendance record, who he said was not a candidate in this election.

Mr Varadkar said that Mr Murphy let down a lot of people in his party and his constituency, following criticism over his Dáil attendance and the expenses claimed.

Mr Varadkar said that there should be an investigation into his actions, which Mr Murphy had agreed to "but seems to have resiled himself from that, and I have a big problem with that".

He also said that neither Verona Murphy nor Maria Bailey were candidates for Fine Gael in the election.  

Mr Varadkar defended his handling of the controversies around each of them, saying that he had followed due process and had given people a second chance, maybe when he should not have. But he said that they do not represent Fine Gael. 

In relation to 'Votegate' and the actions of TDs Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins in the Dáil, the Fianna Fáil leader said he took a quick decision to remove them from the frontbench straight away.

When asked if either of the two TDs would serve in his cabinet if he was elected taoiseach, Mr Martin said that no party leader would announce their cabinet before an electorate has spoken and that would be presumptuous.

However, he said that being re-elected would "not necessarily" resolve their sins.


The final question of the debate to each leader focused on the mistakes they had made.

The Fianna Fáil leader said that he has learned to stand out against the herd and not to just go along with things because so many people are saying it.

Ms McDonald said that she and her party had made mistakes in their last electoral outing. But she said she would never make the mistake of misunderstanding who and what Sinn Féin represents.

Finally, Mr Varadkar admitted he makes mistakes all the time, as a human being. He said that often those mistakes come from the fact he answers straight questions with straight answers, which can sometimes be too blunt.

The debate was moderated by Prime Time presenters Miriam O'Callaghan and David McCullagh.