Micheal Martin promised a mix of ambitious pledges and fiscal prudence as he outlined Fianna Fail’s election manifesto.
The party is to hold back 1.2 billion euro of the 11 billion euro funding pot available to the next government, to protect against any potential future economic shocks.
But among the remaining 9.8 billion euro of spending pledges, Mr Martin acknowledged the party has set itself challenging targets for the next five years, such as the delivery of 200,000 new homes.
He denied he was indulging in “auction politics”, with commitments that include the hiring of 4,000 new nurses, a deferment in raising the state pension age, and reductions in capital gains tax and USC rates.
Mr Martin said he was not being “reckless”, insisting all the pledges had been fully costed.
“It’s more prudent than that which has been provided to date by other political parties,” he said.
Fianna Fail’s 4:1 ratio between public service investments and tax cutting measures is the same proportional spend offered by Fine Gael.
Mr Martin said the housebuilding target, which includes 50,000 affordable homes for purchase and 50,000 social housing units, reflected the urgency of the homelessness crisis.
“We’re going all out on housing and that’s the centrepiece of our manifesto, because it’s a deep crisis,” he said.
The Fianna Fail leader added: “The housing crisis is of genuinely historic proportions, yet we have government which has to be forced into action and still misses vital targets.
“The scandal of record homelessness must be tackled.”
Fianna Fail’s pledged extra two billion spend on health is less than half of the five billion euro promised by Fine Gael.
When challenged on the difference, Mr Martin said his rivals had a track record of failing to deliver on promises.
Justifying the retention of 1.2 billion of the available finances, he said there was a need to put money aside for a possible downturn, to absorb public service wage costs and anticipate the impact on services of an ageing population.
He criticised what he claimed was Fine Gael’s failure to control spending.
Mr Martin claimed recent government supplementary budgets, amounting to seven billion euro, could have created serious fiscal problems if it had not been for low interest rates and unforeseen income from other sources.
Addressing one of Fine Gael’s main boasts – that it has the best team to handle Brexit – Mr Martin insisted his party was well placed to represent Ireland in the next phase of negotiations.
He said Fianna Fail had a “reservoir of talent” to draw on in terms of European affairs.
“We are committed to leading a government which will complete the process in a way that minimises the damage inflicted on our country,” he said.
He accused his rivals of failing to adequately prepare Irish businesses for the impact of a hard Brexit.
“Ireland was not ready for Brexit last year and we cannot afford the risk of this still being the case later this year when the transitionary period runs out,” he said.
Turning to the polls, which indicate that Fianna Fail will emerge as the biggest party, Mr Martin said he has “made it very clear” his party is not open to working in coalition with Fine Gael.
The scandal of record homelessness must be tackledMicheal Martin
“It’s clear to us that people want a change and want a new government,” he added.
“People want Fine Gael out of government and that’s very clear to us. We want to create a new dynamic that is about substance.”
He said his party wanted to partner up with more “like-minded” parties in relation to health, housing and climate action.
In terms of the environment, Fianna Fail wants to establish a National Infrastructure Commission to manage a 30-year transition away from fossil fuel reliance.
“I’m not assuming anything in terms of who gets the most seats,” Mr Martin added.
“I don’t believe in opinion polls. Elections throw up surprises and our fundamental aim is to achieve as many seats as we can so it puts us in the position to lead the government.”
Challenged on whether the public can trust a Fianna Fail government, Mr Martin added: “I am getting a very good and warm response. People are talking to us. It’s clear from the doorstep that people want change.
“They are sceptical of political parties making promises during election campaigns.
Elections throw up surprises and our fundamental aim is to achieve as many seats as we can so it puts us in the position to lead the governmentMicheal Martin
“They are responding warmly to us and we take nothing for granted and we will deal with those issues.
“A lot of people do trust and accept what we did in the last five years. Our behaviour on many issues have given reassurance to people and if you look at this manifesto it is a prudent enough approach.”
If elected, the party will also establish a unit to lead a formal study and cross-community consultation to inform how the Government should handle a potential future unity referendum.
Asked about his position on a border poll, Mr Martin said his priority was to strengthen relationships across the island.
“All in my political life I’ve been very committed to building bridges and building relationships, and my commitment is to continue with that,” he said.
“It seems there is too much disengagement in recent years.
“Unity is about unity of people through self-determination, through working with people in agreement.
“Referendums should never be used as a threat.”