Sinn Féin’s march towards Election Day in the Republic faltered last night as Mary Lou McDonald struggled to explain how her party will finance a multi-billion euro giveaway.
Ms McDonald also floundered when questioned about her party’s links to the Provisional IRA and in particularly their treatment of the family of murdered Paul Quinn.
She refused to ask her finance minister in the Assembly, Conor Murphy, to apologise to Mr Quinn’s grieving mother for suggesting he was involved in criminality.
An IRA gang is believed to be behind the brutal killing of the 21-year-old in Monaghan. Every bone in his body was broken after he was lured to a shed near Castleblayney.
Last night, Breege Quinn pleaded with voters: “I’m saying to the people remember Paul Quinn when you are marking your X.”
However, Sinn Féin were on 25% in the latest opinion poll, the first time they have ever been ahead of Fianna Fáil (23%) and Fine Gael (21%).
The ‘Irish Times’/Ipsos MRBI poll results came after Ms McDonald was robustly interviewed by Bryan Dobson on RTÉ television.
She was forced to defend her party’s record in Northern Ireland, including plans to increase the state pension age and massive hospital waiting lists.
And she admitted that her party’s plan to raise €107m through a Vacant Site Levy would see a large chunk of that windfall collected from local authorities.
She could not explain who would pay the £10bn subvention Northern Ireland receives from Westminster in the event of a united Ireland.
However, she said the British would “not walk off the pitch scot free”.
Ms McDonald also said a border poll was not a “red line” issue for her in government formation talks, but added that whoever is in power after the election should prepare for a referendum.
The interview came shortly after RTÉ did a U-turn and invited Ms McDonald onto a televised election debate with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin tonight.
The move followed a surge in support for Sinn Féin in recent opinion polls and calls from the party to include Ms McDonald in the final debate. However, she was under pressure last night over her grasp of her own election pledges and how they would be funded.
She was asked to explain how her plans to increase the vacant site levy from 7% to 15% would raise €107m when last year it only raised €882,000.
Ms McDonald responded: “I’m not the costing unit of the department concerned.”
She also admitted her party was given a free vote on increasing the state pension age to 66 in Northern Ireland and decided to support the move due to concerns it would have on budgets.
She said keeping the pension age at 65, as Sinn Féin is promising in the general election, would have “blown a hole of £70m” in the Assembly’s budget. She blamed the record high hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland on the Conservative Party.
Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar’s and Mr Martin’s personal ratings have both dropped and were level on 30% last night. Satisfaction with the government is down six points and now stands at just 20%.