The leaders of Ireland’s three main political parties have clashed in their final TV debate before voting in the general election takes place.
Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) and leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald took part in the RTE Prime Time debate.
The programme took place after a shock poll showed a huge surge in support for Sinn Fein. The party topped the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll for the first time, with 25% of voters saying they intended to vote for the party. Fianna Fail was second on 23%, with Fine Gael – in government since 2011 – lagging behind in third place on 20%.
It could be a seismic shift in Irish politics, although Sinn Fein is running too few candidates (just 42) to see them lead a new government, or have Mary Lou McDonald become Taoiseach.
As expected, both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin focused attacks on Ms McDonald from early in the debate, with the Taoiseach accusing her party of being soft on crime, due to its opposition to the country’s non-jury Special Criminal Court, used to jail terrorists and serious criminals.
Ms McDonald also had to defend Sinn Fein’s record on homelessness in Northern Ireland, as well as its part in the collapse of power-sharing in Stormont three years ago. She attacked Mr Varadkar’s government for what she called the “social and economic catastrophe” that was the housing situation in Ireland.
Mr Varadkar pointed out that on his watch as Taoiseach, home-building had doubled. He also repeated his warning to voters not to change government at “half-time” in the Brexit process, and said that Brexit as well as Donald Trump were examples of bad change.
On health, a crucial election issue, Mr Martin said his party would bring about “real, immediate, urgent change in terms of getting patients off waiting lists”.
The parties will now head into the last few days of campaigning to win over undecided voters. Mr Varadkar knows he’s under real pressure, despite a thriving economy and plaudits for his leadership on Brexit. Mr Martin’s party is in the driving seat to lead the next government, if the polls are reflected in actual voting patterns.
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, may lack the numbers to be part of government formation talks this time around, but could be on the verge of elevation to mainstream recognition south of the border.