by Samantha Calthrop
UCC’s Government & Politics and Law Society’s General Election debate saw four party representatives come to UCC and debate 2020’s election issues. Moderated by Government & Politics lecturer Dr. Mary C. Murphy, councillors Lorna Bogue (Green Party), Colm Kelleher (Fianna Fáil), Thomas Gould (Sinn Fein), and Social Democrats candidate Ciarán McCarthy all took part.
The debate drew laughter, applause and plenty of criticism, particularly against Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Dr. Murphy grilled debaters on the big topics of housing, taxation, crime and direct provision.
Dr. Murphy had the representatives start on the topic of housing, one of the biggest election issues. Fianna Fáil Cllr, Colm Kelleher stood representing his party despite not running for a position in this year’s General Election. He defended Fianna Fáil’s record, saying that they’d always provided houses and defending the clustered-housing model that is often said to cause anti-social behaviour. When questioned on the party’s performance in their Fine Gael coalition, he described it as a “necessary evil” that prioritised the national interest on the party. (He also harshly dismissed the idea of low rent zones and a rent freeze as “not working”, much to the contempt of the other representatives.) He said that the key to fixing the crisis was to put pressure on the banks to give out more, higher mortgages, and more help-to-buy systems. He defended Fianna Fáil’s plans to build 200,000 social housing units as entirely possible without Fine Gael’s influence.
Ciarán McCarthy (Social Democrats)’s theme for the night was ending intergenerational loyalty and breaking cycles, slamming the country’s past record. He also repeatedly said the housing crisis needed to be solved by “just getting it done”, and returned to that phrase whenever asked about social housing or land development. He described Irish society as “not fit for purpose”, pointing to high childcare costs, low starting wages, and soaring rents, asserting that “petty tax cuts” would not fix the problem. (When questioned about the practicality of his party’s housing development scheme, he repeated his mantra of it being absolutely possible and just getting it done. “We just maintain the tax base. We can afford it.”) He also called for a national rent freeze.
Cllr Lorna Bogue (Green) opened with the story of how she was affected by the previous government’s housing policy; she described herself living in a boxroom in Douglas after the 4% rent increase cap caused her to be evicted as her previous landlord sold the property. She pinpointed the problem as landlords holding too many rights and too many barriers being between planning and building, pointing to the European Vienna Model as a cheaper, rent-controlled, government-led housing system. She also levelled some very pointed criticism against Fianna Fáil’s Colm Kelleher, pointing out that he and his party had voted against 16 social housing units in Cork just two weeks ago. “We can talk about how much we love social housing, but unless you’re willing to vote in favour of it, it means nothing.” she said, prompting Cllr Kelleher to defend the decision, then concede and point out that the development was built anyway. “Yes, because the rest of us voted for it!” was Cllr Bogue’s retort.
The next topic was crime and party views on Direct Provision, rolled together to save time. Ciarán McCarthy pointed to his career in refugee law, describing the direct provision system as a “stain on our country”, with waiting times inhumanly long. “We need to take this out of the hands of the private sector,” he said, criticising profit-driven models of direct provision centres. He described the press as overplaying the issue of crime, criticising “worship” of drug gang leaders— “These people are losers. They’re not criminal masterminds.” He pointed to the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau as needing to continue.
Cllr Bogue agreed with reforming direct provision, and took it a step further, suggesting that deportation altogether should be stopped and borders should be dissolved. She said that asylum seekers should be permitted to integrate into society and work, and be allowed into the social welfare system as ordinary citizens. When Dr. Murphy asked about fear of immigration, such as the one that motivated Brexit, Cllr Bogue retorted that that was a “Racist, unfounded fear, and we shouldn’t give in.” She defended economic migrants, pointing to the large number of undocumented Irish migrants in America. “How many people is it acceptable to drown in the Mediterrean?” she said, criticising current migration policies. On the topic of crime, she pointed to issues of community funding, and that the key to reducing crime rates was to provide community supports and prevent “brutalising”, preventing crime in the first place.
In contrast, when Cllr Kelleher started on Fianna Fáil’s crime policies, he said that crime must be, “smashed”. He described the need for more community guards, stronger anti-terror laws, and more action in the Special Criminal Court. He also made a note that he personally supported drug decriminalisation, although sheepishly conceded when Dr. Murphy pointed out that his party didn’t. He didn’t comment on the topic of direct provision.
At this point, Sinn Féin’s Cllr Thomas Gould had arrived, and he chimed in with stories of crime families in Cork that have been left untouched for forty years. In particular he slammed Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s record, and said that younger criminals needed to be challenged sooner. He also criticised lack of resources, pointing out the small number of guards, stations and cars in North Cork; “What kind of Mickey Mouse country are we that we have community police sitting in stations with no cars to take them?” he said. He also promised more investment in teachers and youth workers.
The floor opened for questions, taking three; one on opinions on devolution of power to local governments, one pointedly asking why Fianna Fáil should ever be trusted again after 2008, and environmental policy. All the councillors broadly agree on the topic of power devolution, all bemoaning the influence that Dublin has over Cork; Cllr Kelleher notes that local governments already control housing and property taxes. When pressed on trusting Fianna Fáil, he pointed out that the economic crisis was suffered globally, not just in Ireland, and wasn’t Fianna Fáil’s fault; Cllr Bogue chipped in to point out that the Green Party should also be held accountable, and that Fianna Fáil’s policies did absolutely affect quality of life after the crash. As for environmental policy, Fianna Fáil plans to build a wind farm off the coast, although Cllr Kelleher criticised the idea of free public transport, a stance which all three of his opponents disagreed with. Cllr Bogue, naturally, outlined the Green Party’s very aspirational climate policy, aiming for a movement towards a low-carbon society; she also colourfully described Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s policies on the matter as, “Two cheeks on the same arse”. Sinn Féin’s Cllr Gould outlined plans for stricter laws, such as a fracking ban and a stop to issuing oil drilling licenses, as well as slamming Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael for blocking public transport plans “for votes”.
Dr Murphy asked each party to give a short closing statement, although almost all of them failed to be short; Cllr Bogue re-emphasised her environmental policies, while Mr McCarthy pushed down on the novelty route, describing a “willingness for change”. Cllr Gould also called on the desire for change, while Cllr Kelleher’s urging to vote for Fianna Fáil largely involved criticising Sinn Féin, urging young voters to vote for anybody except them, because they “are not the same”.
Overall, the packed-out debate event seemed to go smoothly enough, albeit with Cllr Gould and Cllr Bogue frequently teaming up to criticise Fianna Fáil’s track record in the City Council. As Cllr Kelleher noted at the beginning of the debate, he was the target of most of the criticism, being the only representative of the “big two” parties. Dr. Mary Murphy shone as moderator in this debate, several times cutting in to refocus, counter points, and point out hypocrisies in all parties, and closed the debate with a call for all young voters to come out in force. “The young don’t traditionally vote in the same numbers as the grey vote,” she said, pointing out how the results of Brexit and previous general elections could have been different with a bigger youth vote.
The general election is to take place Saturday, 8 February.