TV3’s Vincent Browne ‘People’s Debate’ in Donegal attracts lively discussion

While Fine Gael and Labour were expected to take a beating at yesterday evening’s Vincent Browne-hosted ‘People’s Debate’ in Letterkenny – in part deserved as the two parties refused to participate – Fianna Fail also took a drubbing.

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At one point, after listening to the party’s TD Charlie McConalogue berate government policies, the veteran TV host exclaimed, “I cannot understand how you can make these criticisms. Fine Gael is simply following Fianna Fail policies. Fianna Fail laid down the strategy for dealing with the banking bailout and Fine Gael and Labour are merely following it.”

McConalogue made another mistake later in the debate saying, “the agreement with the Troika was negotiable,” thus contradicting what the public had been told by Fianna Fail that the deal under former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minster of Finance, Brian Lenihan, was non-negotiable. Browne was quick to make the point, “Your party said details of the agreement with the Troika were non-negotiable, yet now you say they were. Make up your mind.”

On the emotive issue of water charges, McConalogue – after much fudging said he would halt Irish Water and suspend water charges. Again, Browne responded, “Your party, Fianna Fail, already had a plan in place in 2010 to impose water charges, but now you’re saying you’re having second thoughts.”

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Browne, at his best as a current affairs host when pushing political guests for a clear-cut answer, didn’t let the lively capacity audience down, especially when badgering the four-member panel for their views on a potential coalition after the next election. Asked whether he would take a ministerial seat under a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail led coalition Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty seemed somewhat uncomfortable in his seat.

“That is a hypothetical question and such decisions are made at our party Ard Fheis,” he said finally, as if caught by surprise, but recovering. “What we have agreed is that unless water and property charges are dropped, we will not go into any coalition.” He acknowledged, “Some members have voiced their opinion that they would go into a coalition as a minority party. We are a party hungry for change, we are not hungry for power.”

When asked the same question, his Sinn Fein colleague TD Pádraig MacLochlainn was more direct, unhesitatingly replying, “I will not participate in a government led by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.” As if taking strength from this, Doherty later stated categorically, “If asked by a government led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to be a minister, I would refuse.”

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After chastising the two Sinn Fein members for not giving a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, McConalogue himself began the dance of the slippery eel until, under bombardment from host and audience, he finally said, “I would not like to participate in a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition but if I was outvoted by my party colleagues I’d have to go along.”

In his two-minute intro, Doherty said “four years ago we were promised a democratic revolution yet all we have had is more of the same with cronyism, stealth taxes and high levels of unemployment, no more so than right here in Donegal. There is a fairer and better way of moving forward and Sinn Fein’s job strategy can reshape this county.” He added that it was little wonder Donegal was known as ‘The Forgotten County.’ “I know Vincent you didn’t come here by train because this is one of only five counties in all Ireland without a mainline railway service.” Under an FOI request he said he has asked for a government paper produced on the future of small schools, adding that Donegal has the second largest number of such schools, with four teacher or less.

When corruption and lack of transparency within Údarás na Gaeltachta was brought up, including its refusal to release key information on its public spending such as lucrative pension payments to former executives which amount to half of its entire annual budget, Doherty said his party had tabled formal parliamentary questions on the issue, adding, “there should be full disclosure about people in receipt of high public pensions, it is important to have complete transparency so such payments can be scrutinized by the public.”

McConalogue said in his intro, “the last four years of government have been an attack on Donegal with post office closures, agriculture being hard hit and worsening heath services,” adding, “we have strong potential here but we need better infrastructure including the A5 project up and running and wider broadband.”

Referring to the pre-election catchphrase ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way,’ MacLochlainn said the government’s record has proved very different, “with a reduction in classrooms, budget cuts across the board and Donegal having the lowest allocation of medical staff of any county.” He added, “Donegal people are hard-working and passionate. All we’re asking is a fair chance and for Dublin to meet us halfway.”

Regarding the water charges, he added, “For thirty years, Sinn Fein has opposed these charges and now it has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. There has simply been too much austerity. Irish Water is a white elephant. My message is ‘scrap the water charges and go back to the drawing board.’ ”

While decrying the lack of proper health services and unfair stealth taxes, Independent TD Thomas Pringle said renewable energy had tremendous potential for Donegal as had the biomass wood industry. Speaking of Killybegs, he also said the fishing industry had been “hard-hit.’ He said water conservation should be a top priority because so much is being lost through poor network connectivity. He also said he was proud of challenging the bank bail-out through the courts and being in the forefront of water charge protests (continuing the momentum, a major ‘Right2Water’ protest took place earlier today – Saturday – in Letterkenny, with others elsewhere nationwide).

All four TDs, when asked directly, said they would vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Over the lively, two-hour event at the Clanree Hotel, there was no shortage of questions from the floor with periodic rambunctious catcalls, cheering and booing, which caused short stoppages and words of warning from the presenter.

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True to his word, Browne attempted to cover as many topics as possible such as equality, including the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum; family services, education, employment and health. Speakers ranged from parents of terminally-ill children; school teachers, social workers and community activists working on behalf of people as diverse as lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender, cancer sufferers, the disabled, and many others.

Some light-hearted moments and biting comments helped take the edge of emotions as when a thirsty Vincent Browne ran out of water and promised he’d even pay for some and when James Woods from Gortahork commented that with so much emigration, Donegal was turning into a wildlife refuge.

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All in all, ‘People’s Debate’ is an excellent initiative by TV3, no doubt demanding detailed planning to host such shows in all the constituencies of Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour’s decision to spurn them, indicating fear and a lack of understanding of the difficulties facing ordinary people, could ultimately cost them vital votes in the polling booths.

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Sea of Santas parade through Dungloe protesting government water charges

Ignoring doomsayers who said very few would turn out for a protest on a damp Saturday afternoon just before Christmas, organisers of an anti-water-charge protest in Dungloe, Donegal placed trust in the will of the people and deservedly enjoyed even greater success than they expected.

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Independent local councilor Michael Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig, Thomas Pringle Independent TD, social activist Brigid O’Donnell and all those organizing the enduring ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign stood on a rise opposite the Garda Station in Dungloe and watched proudly as a lively group of several hundred people marched determinedly through the town centre.

Many wearing decorative Santa hats – some even dressed in the Bearded Fellas’s full bright-red regalia – the marchers called out the names of those TDs who voted in favor of the water charges, including Donegal TDs Joe McHugh and Dinny McGinley, and encouraged everyone to face up to them and not pay.

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Pringle said his home had been metered but added that he would not pay the bills when they arrived next year due to their unfairness.

“It is very gratifying to see so many people here so close to Christmas, it bodes well for the success of this campaign,” he said addressing the crowd. “We will fight this throughout the coming year, and the year after if we have to.”

Mac Giolla Easbuig, who has put himself in the forefront of the protest by blocking workmen trying to install the meters locally, said, “Even if they go ahead and install meters, we all have the choice whether to pay or not. Boycott is a long-held tradition in Ireland and by doing that we can frustrate a government that continues to impose unfair taxes, hitting those who can least afford them.”

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Starting from Ostan na Rosann, the marchers, young and old alike, with children holding parents’ hands, walked to the top of the main street, past the library, then along to Lidl’s supermarket and back again, before stopping to hear a number of speakers, including O’Donnell, who had called for the protest and who’s birthday it was that same day.

For her efforts, she was greeted by warm applause and an impromptu chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ from all those gathered.

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As we move into a New Year, we all nourish the hope of better things ahead. But sometimes hope is not enough. There has to be real discussion and there has to be real action. That’s why my wife and I showed our solidarity and marched with so many other people who turned out on a cold, damp day this past weekend when they could so easily have stayed snug at home beside a warm fire.

In passing so many stealth taxes since it came into power and failing to raise a wealth tax or deal properly with cronyism and the banker-cum-Irish-Water-bonus mentality, the government relied on people’s apathy.

But they severely underestimated the depth of feeling of the electorate and have paid a hefty price for that failure thus far. If opinion polls are anything to go by, they’ll pay an even bigger price when national elections come round again – unless they start doing what they promised to do – to create a more equitable society in Ireland than there has been in generations.

Let’s hope 2015 proves to be a momentous watershed in this regard, and certainly a big improvement over this past year.

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