Leaders debate fact-check: Our experts debunk claims on tax, housing, environment and average earnings

The seven party leaders took part in a testy two-hour debate on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live. There were a lot of claims and statements thrown about, but how many of them were accurate?

Our experts were on hand to bebunk claims by Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, Labour’s Brendan Howlin, Solidarity/PBP’s Richard Boyd Barrett, Green Party’s Eamon Ryan and Social Democrats’ Roísín Shortall.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the true and false claims:

Our survey says… no

CLAIM: Banks pay no tax

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald claimed the public purse is losing out  because banks pay no corporation tax. This led to a row with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who argued that while they pay 0pc corporation tax the Government has designed other ways of collecting income from banks. Ms McDonald replied: “They pay nothing.”

FACTCHECK by Head of News Kevin Doyle

After years of turmoil as a result of the economic crash, our banks have returned to profit. However, they still pay a tax exemption which permits them to write off taxes against past losses. Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has said the imposition of a bank levy is a more appropriate way of taxing bank. The State still owns a 71pc of AIB and officials have warned that changes to the tax regime could hurt its value.

VERDICT: FALSE. While banks don’t pay corporation tax, it is wrong to suggest they “pay nothing”. The State collects €150m every year through the bank levy. There is also a benefit to the taxpayer from share dividends.

CLAIM: Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said putting the state pension age back to 65 would cost €368m

FACT-CHECK by Industry Correspondent Anne-Marie Walsh

VERDICT: Incorrect. Its not far off but the Department of Social Protection estimates it would cost €430m a year gross or €217.5m net.


CLAIM: Homelessness

Micheál Martin claimed: “Homelessness has gone up 40pc in four years.” He says this is an indictment on Fine Gael’s housing policies.

FACT-CHECK by Environment Correspondent Caroline O’Doherty

In January 2016, the number of homeless was 5,715 – 1,830 of them children. Four years on, the number (taken from the most recent figures which are for last November) stands at 10,448, of which 3,752 are children. The actual increase is 80pc. Mr Martin may have been thinking of late 2016. The increase from then to now is closer to 40pc.

VERDICT: Mainly TRUE. Fianna Fáil are correct in saying that homelessness has increased substantially in the last four years but taking four years as a rigid time span, they actually underestimate the rise.


CLAIM: Internet in Garda stations Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, speaking on garda resources and internet connections, said that “about 20pc of the functioning garda stations don’t have that (internet).”

FACT-CHECK by crime correspondent Robin Schiller:  In response to a parliamentary question last October Justice Minister Charlie Flanagain said: “There are 565 Garda stations in the State. I am informed by An Garda Síochána that the number which are networked can vary but at present, 519 of these stations are fully networked.”Any member attached to a currently unconnected station can access Pulse at their local district station.”As a percentage, this is around 8pc.


Our survey says… correct

CLAIM: Garda numbersLeo Varadkar claimed his Government restored garda recruitment, while Fine Gael tweeted that garda numbers, at 14,300, were at their highest in a decade.

FACT-CHECK by Legal Affairs Editor Shane Phelan

There were just under 14,400 gardaí in 2010. That figure steadily declined to a low of 12,800 under the Fine Gael/Labour coalition led by Enda Kenny. Recruitment was increased year on year since 2015 under the outgoing Government.

VERDICT: True. The most recent Budget provides for the recruitment of 700 additional gardaí in 2020. This is expected to bring garda numbers up to 14,700 this year, the highest level since 2010

CLAIM: Fine Gael previously promised to abolish USC

Fianna Fáil Micheál Martin claimed Fine Gael shouldn’t be trusted to cut income tax because they abandoned a pledge to scrap the Universal Social Charge (USC) during the last election. He also argued the Brexit was “good cover” for the lack of tax measures announced in last October’s budget. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar argued the Brexit was “not a cover story” and Mr Martin was engaging in “conspiracy theories”. He said Fine Gael will keep the economy strong and raise the entry point for the higher rate of income tax to €50,000.

FACT-CHECK by Head of News Kevin Doyle

The abolition of the USC was the number one commitment that Fine Gael made to voters during the 2016 election campaign. Then finance minister Michael Noonan described the USC as “easily the most hated tax in the country”. 

“It’s a hated tax. It’s a socially divisive tax. It was introduced as an emergency measure. The emergency is over,” he said.

Fine Gael’s plan included a clawback (wealth tax) on incomes over €100,000 but those workers would still make a net gain. However, the proposals were dropped in July 2017, shortly after Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach. The party’s policy shifted to the idea of integrating the USC into the PRSI system.

VERDICT: True. While Fine Gael has reduced the USC and income tax rates since 2016, the party’s big tax pledge from the last election was abandoned.    

CLAIM: Education spend

Leo Varadkar claimed Ireland is spending record levels on education

FACT-CHECK by Education Editor Katherine Donnelly

The education Budget  is record €11.1bn for 2020, but Ireland is at the bottom of the international league in terms of what it spends on education.

Only two countries invest less of their national wealth in their education system overall – while Ireland is lowest in terms of spending at post-primary level.

According to the OECD Education at a Glance 2019 report  the average share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) spent on education on 2016 was 3.5pc, joint second from the bottom of 35 countries and it compared  with an OECD average of 5pc and an EU average of 4.5pc. 

VERDICT: True but it doesn’t  give the full picture.

CLAIM: Average worker earns €47,000

Leo Varadkar said the average worker earned €47,000 a year.

FACT-CHECK by Industry Correspondent Anne-Marie Walsh

VERDICT: Almost correct. Average full-time earnings stood at €47,038 in 2018. Last year they rose 2.5pc to €48,204.


CLAIM: Environment

Eamon Ryan claimed: “We’ve gone from 500 pristine rivers to 20.” He made the remark in the context of the ongoing expansion of the national herd and the damage to the environment caused by intensive agriculture both in terms of high greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

FACT-CHECK by Environment Correspondent Caroline O’Doherty

The Environmental Protection Agency recently published a five-year study of Irish rivers and lakes and it said the number of rivers that could be categorised as pristine was 500 in the 1980s but had fallen to just 20 now. The main problems the EPA found affecting water quality and animal and plant life in the rivers were pollution by nitrates from agriculture as well phosphates, which are also traced to farming but also industry and households.

VERDICT: TRUE. The figures speak for themselves. The EPA has been chronicling water quality closely for all this time and its comparison between the situation in the late 1980s and 2018, the last year of the recent study, is scientifically backed up.

Partly true

CLAIM: Sinn Fein doesn’t support the Special Criminal CourtIn an early exchange with Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said they don’t support the Special Criminal Court while saying his own party want to tackle “the drug lords”. 

FACT-CHECK by crime correspondent Robin Schiller In 2016, a main promise of Sinn Fein’s general election campaign was to abolish the Special Criminal Court, citing criticisms of the non-jury court from a range of groups including the UN Human Rights Committee and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

The party came in for criticism as it came at the time of the Regency Hotel murder and an outbreak of gangland violence in Dublin.In recent weeks, the party has made a slight u-turn on their pledge four years ago, with Deputy McDonald saying: “We accept that we have to have mechanisms that work to keep the community safe. So Special Criminal Courts aren’t unproblematic, they are. I want us to see a review of that,” Ms McDonald said.

VERDICT: Mixed. While Sinn Fein in the past have called for the abolition of the Special Criminal Court, the party have rowed back on this significantly in seeking a review of the system. That said, a call for a review of the system still shows the party do not support the current setup of the Special Criminal Court.

CLAIM: Garda stations

Mary Lou McDonald has claimed Leo Varadkar’s Government and the Government before it cut garda stations and garda recruitment.

FACT-CHECK by Legal Affairs Editor Shane PhelanSome 139 Garda stations were closed as part of a rationalization programme announced in the 2012 and 2013 policing plans, during the Fine Gael/Labour Government led by Enda Kenny. Although a small number of garda stations have since reopened, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has ruled out the widespread re-opening of rural garda stations closed during the cost-cutting programme.

VERDICT: Partially true. A large number of garda stations were closed by the previous Fine Gael-led Government. The outgoing Government agreed to reopen six of these.

CLAIM: social housing Leo Varadkar has claimed: “Almost no council houses were being built three years ago when we took over housing.” He was referring to the years prior to May 2016 when Fine Gael took over the housing brief even though the party was in government for the previous five years too.

FACT-CHECK by Environment Correspondent Caroline O’DohertyBuilding of local authority homes did plummet during the recession from around 3,500-4,900 between 2004 and 2009 to 102 in 2014 and just 75 in 2015. Just over 900 were built in 2019 which is 12 times more.  But in 2015 as now, the official figure for social housing provision included direct local authority builds, builds by housing charities, acquisitions and long-term letting agreements. The total figure for 2015 was just over 13,300 while the total for 2019 was about 28,000 so the improvement in overall provision is a doubling.

VERDICT: Partly TRUE. Fine Gael are correct that council house building fell to very low figures up to 2015 and has improved since but usually the party is very  reluctant to separate out actual builds from all the various forms of social housing provision. For example, Eoghan Murphy has repeatedly said that Fine Gael would ‘build’ 6,000 social homes in 2019, which is only true when you taken into account the housing charities and approved housing bodies.  So for Leo Varadkar to pick out the pre-2016 actual build figures is arguably an unhelpful comparison.

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