RTE’s Primetime hosted a head-to-head debate between the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. Ahern emphasised past achievements, whilst Kenny spoke about building a new future for Ireland. Just how Irish voters will interpret the debate is still open to question.
The Taoiseach appeared the calmer of the two, and he didn’t interrupt Miriam O’Callaghan as much as his opposite number. Kenny’s relative inexperience for the job was highlighted, but the Taoiseach was also put on the spot when a comparison was made with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, stepping aside for Gordon Brown after ten years at the helm, and Bertie’s own ten years in office. The implication was that ten years in power was enough for any one man. The Taoiseach emphasised that he was as enthusiastic now as he had been ten years ago.
The Fine Gael leader emphasised the “solemn contract” he had made with the Irish people and said he had noted the “pulse of the nation.” He also spoke about how Fine Gael would bring to the table “accountability and delivery.” With regard to the changing face of Ireland, Kenny also spoke about appointing a new minister to oversee immigration.
The Taoiseach’s personal finances again came under the spotlight when Miriam O’Callaghan suggested that the Irish people were suspicious about the more unusual aspects of Ahern’s finances. Kenny refused to be drawn on the Taoiseach’s finances and said he had every confidence in the Mahon Tribunal. He also stated that if the Irish people gave him a mandate he would introduce “ethics legislation,” but the Taoiseach quickly replied that “ethics legislation” was already in place.
On the question of health, the Taoiseach said problems here were “not just a question of spending money.” Kenny said that the health system was a “gargantuan failure.” Kenny had plenty of case histories to back up his statistics, speaking of how many midwives Drogheda hospital needed and people sitting in plastic chairs whilst awaiting urgent medical treatment. He also queried why 40,000 operations had been cancelled in the last two years. The Taoiseach said that waiting lists had been improved by 60%.
Ahern was critical of Kenny’s plans to “prioritise” certain elements of the 2.4 billion put aside for the capital program for health spending. Kenny spoke of carrying out a “national audit, changing the infrastructure and getting on with it.” Ahern spoke about the roll-out of cervical cancer schemes and criticised the FG’s leader proposals for his proposed health spend. The Taoiseach said that no child born today would benefit from the under five free health scheme, a point Kenny seemed slow to pick on.
Kenny admitted the Taoiseach had done well as regard the economy but he also noted the efforts of every Irish person in building to that stage. Miriam put it to both men as to their actions if the economy took a downturn. Ahern said the economy had already taken a downturn in 2001, and that his government had not been found wanting, and that they had taken “sharp correctional action.” The Taoiseach also spoke about the number of jobs being created in the country, and stated he had been responsible for creating a “research and development” budget. He also emphasised the quality of the jobs, adding that the economy was creating “higher value-added jobs.” Nothing was said about the recent closures with regard to these higher value added jobs.
Kenny also spoke about the cost of infrastructure, with the Port Tunnel going way over budget and no metro to the airport. He spoke about creating a “bond flotation” for the universities, and added the relevant point that “broadband was a disgrace.” He spoke about reducing red-tape in bureaucracy. Kenny riled the Taoiseach when he said that there seemed to be a “haphazard fashion” to government policies. The Taoiseach hit back and said his proposals were “fully-costed,” and he made a telling point when he said that Labour’s proposals for the economy when coupled with FG’s would cost too much. A figure of 5.8 billion was mentioned, which exceeds the budget set aside for growth. Ahern appealed to the construction industry for votes. In relation to the high costs for electricity, the Taoiseach spoke about the “energy white paper.” Ahern said there was no “haphazard fashion” in relation to Fianna Fail’s policies.
Kenny said he had a “4.9 billion fiscal envelope,” and both leaders accused each other of not taking account of certain factors like pension costs, costs for soldiers, and teacher costs. Kenny said there was a “lack of joined-up thinking.”
With regard to the PRSI paid by employees, Ahern said that the FG proposals for taxing individuals was “inherently unfair,” if employees earning 45K per year had to pay the same as those earning 450K.
On the topic of crime, Ahern spoke about the government’s latest efforts in introducing ASBO’s, the plans for Thornton prison, and 2000 extra Gardai on the streets. Ahern said that outdated prisons like Mountjoy were inadequate when people could use a “hurl or a tennis racket” to toss drugs into the courtyard.
Kenny hit back with figures that serious crime figures were up: “Murder up by 43%. Serious gun crime up. Rape up by 25%.” He emphasised that crime lords were watching “TV on plasma screens,” and were using “prison cells as hubs for contract killings.” Kenny promised tough action on crime. The two leaders were at loggerheads over Gardai on the streets figures. The Taoiseach said it was a “disgrace” that a criminal could ring RTE’s Lifeline from a high category prison cell. He also emphasised the importance of his government in introducing the Criminal Justice Bill and changes to the “right to silence.” Kenny also had more case histories for Ahern on criminal matters, but the matter he referred to was according to the Taoiseach a matter for the DPP.
Ahern didn’t agree that “quality of life issues” were as stark as painted, referring to Irish people travelling abroad more, having more money, and perhaps owning a second home. When Ahern spoke about “balanced regional development,” Kenny hit back immediately and said that was “nonsense.” Kenny spoke about school places and lack of infrastructure in places like Skerries and Ongar. The Taoiseach’s reply was one word: “Adamstown.” The FG leader admitted that they had got Adamstown right, but that was only one place. A short discussion on “class sizes” ensued.
The debate ended with a personal statement by both men. Kenny spoke a bit of gaeilge as he made a direct appeal to the Irish people for their mandate, and stated that Fianna Fail couldn’t do in 15 years what they had failed to do in 10,” and referred to the immortal words of President Abraham Lincoln: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people. All of the people.”
Based in Dublin.