TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has said he is willing to form a government with Fianna Fáil after the general election.
In the first head-to-head televised debate with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Mr Varadkar said Fine Gael would also be prepared to support a Fianna Fáil minority government under a confidence and supply deal.
“It’s not my preference but if it’s the only way we can form a stable government in this country I am willing to,” Mr Varadkar said.
The debate is taking place in the Virgin Media studios in Dublin and is moderated by broadcaster Pat Kenny.
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It is the first televised head-to-head debate since Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny faced off against each other in during the 2007 General Election campaign.
The Fine Gael leader said that his preference was to form a coalition with Labour, Independents and potentially the Green Party. “We’re willing to work with any other party with the exception of Sinn Féin,” he said.
Mr Martin did not directly answer the question as to whether he would form a government with Fine Gael or be prepared to underpin another confidence and supply deal.
Mr Varadkar said Fianna Fáil coalitions with Labour and the Greens “collapsed amid scandal and acrimony”.
- Read More: Sinn Féin issues legal letter to RTÉ over debate exclusion
Mr Martin said Mr Varadkar had not been grown up and said there had been many “personal attacks” on him by Fine Gael in recent weeks.
Mr Martin said the “rising cost of living is hitting everyone” and said the country needs a new government. “I believe our country needs a new government, a government that will put aside the obsession with party politics,” he said.
Speaking on the Virgin Media One debate, Mr Varadkar defended the government’s record saying there are more people at work than ever before, incomes are up, poverty is down, there was a deal on Brexit and in the North. He also claimed that the government had “doubled the number of homes being built” with 21,000 more people and families in home this year.
Mr Varadkar said: “You expected more from us and I want us to do more.”
He that Fine Gael has “a plan for fairer taxes, and higher wages and reduce the cost of living” and pledged more hospital beds and homes in the coming years.
- Read More: John Downing: ‘A clear win in TV debate could help Varadkar turn this election around’
Mr Varadkar responded to claims that Fine Gael is lacking in empathy.
He said: “I know people say about party and me but I care deeply about our country”.
He suggested that he probably hasn’t put it into words as well as Mr Martin but added: “I do it in my actions”.
Mr Varadkar listed bringing in the second highest minimum wage in Europe, reversing cuts to social welfare and disabilities payments and introducing more parental leave “so parents could spend more time with their kids”.
“I show my empathy, I show the fact that I care in the work I do. Maybe I don’t say the right words, but it shows in the work I do.”
Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin clashed on housing.
The Taoiseach was asked about an interview where he outlined how he bought a home in his 20s.
He said he wants that to be a reality for everyone and argued that the Help-to-Buy scheme has helped around 15,000 people buy a home.
Mr Varadkar said some of the best moments he’s had as Taoiseach is visiting new developments and seeing the owners turn their keys.
He admitted that not enough has been done and said: “I want to do more.”
Mr Martin claimed Fine Gael’s efforts to tackle the housing crisis have come “too late”.
He said there are “too many people housing waiting lists, too many people homeless”.
He said: “There hasn’t been the house-building progress we deserve”.
Mr Martin pointed out that people can’t save for homes due to the “excessive high cost of rent”.
He denied a suggestion from Mr Kenny that Fianna Fáil’s proposed SSIA-style scheme for first-time buyers is the “same old” politics from the party insisting: “It’s designed to help young people”.
Mr Varadkar claimed the Fianna Fáil scheme would increase demand but not supply.
Mr Martin accused Fine Gael of “ignoring affordable housing” and promising to end homelessness but failing to do so.
Mr Martin said there was “no comparison” between his and Mr Vardkar’s time in the Department of Health. Mr Martin said he increased beds by 1,000 while he was Minister for Health and waiting lists for operations were far lower.
Mr Varadkar said Mr Martin did some good things in health such as the smoking ban and the introduction of centres of excellence for cancer.
However, Mr Varadkar said Mr Martin did not publish figures for the number of people waiting on hospital trolleys when he was a minister. The Taosieach also noted he introduced free GP care for children under 6s.
Mr Martin said Mr Varadkar was using GPs for “electoral” purposes by promising to increase the free service to all children under 18s in his election manifesto.
The Fianna Fáil leader said Mr Varadkar had “no shame” and continually offered “free this” and “free that” ahead of elections. He said people in rural Ireland could not get on GP lists because of Fine Gael’s policies. Mr Martin said voters were “not fooled” by Mr Varadkar’s promises
Mr Varadkar said Mr Martin was showing “unbelievable arrogance” by claiming Fianna Fáil never made any mistakes in government. He also raised a nursing homes funding controversy which Mr Martin was involved in while Minister for Health.
The Taoiseach said the health system can be fixed through the Slaintecare plan which has been agreed by all the parties. Mr Martin said Fine Gael had implemented very little of the plan since it had been agreed.
Mr Varadkar said he wanted to express his “deep regret” to anyone who had to spend time on a trolley. He said Fianna Fáil took beds out of hospitals and Fine Gael were going to put them back in. Both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin said they both have private health insurance.
Mr Varadkar said he did no believe politicians are shown favouritism when they check into hospital and said former Communications Minister Denis Naughten was recently in his hospital he spent time on a trolley
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has criticised the format of the debate and insisted she should have been allowed to take part.
A debate involving the leaders of all parties will be hosted by RTE’s Claire Byrne on Monday night.
Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin will take party in a second head-to-head debate on RTE in the last week of the campaign.
Mr Varadkar came to studio with an entourage of advisers and Cabinet ministers, including Paschal Donohoe, Regina Doherty and Simon Harris.
Meanwhile, Mr Martin was accompanied by a small team of advisers.
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