Mary Lou McDonald has urged voters to break Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s almost century-long grip on power in Ireland.
The Sinn Fein president was an 11th hour inclusion in the final main TV debate of the election campaign after her party’s recent surge in the opinion polls.
She used the platform on RTE’s Prime Time to promise a government centred on the citizens.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted that not all change was for the better, citing Brexit and Donald Trump as examples of bad electoral decisions, as he cautioned against support for Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.
Micheal Martin insisted Fianna Fail was the only party that had produced credible plans to fix problems in health and housing.
Mrs McDonald said Sinn Fein offered an alternative form of government.
“It is right to say that the theme of this election has emerged as a thirst for change,” she said.
“I am very clear what that change means. Everywhere that I have gone people have said to me that they recognise that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – essentially identical parties – have had it all their own way now for almost a century.
“People want a different vehicle, a different type of government, and people increasingly recognise Sinn Fein as an alternative.
“And the alternative has to be a party in government that unambiguously stands up for the citizens, for the collective good. That isn’t captured by power brokers in the state, by vested interests, by golden circles, which has been the case with Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar.”
Mr Varadkar insisted his government had delivered real change in terms of social reform, constitutional change, economic improvements and navigating the country through Brexit.
“That’s the kind of change I am making happen and I want to see it through,” he said.
“Bear I mind that all change isn’t change for the better. We saw in Britain with Brexit people voting for change and they got Brexit. We saw Donald Trump being elected in the US – that’s not the kind of change we want. We want change for the better.
“Not Fianna Fail’s change. Fianna Fail hasn’t changed – it is the same old Fianna Fail – they will wreck the economy again.
“You will get change with Sinn Fein but it will be change for the worst, change that risks your job, your pension, your income and your business.”
Micheal Martin insisted his career had been marked by delivering transformative change.
“What we want to do now in terms of health, for example, is bring about real immediate urgent change in terms of getting patients off waiting lists, in terms of hiring more health professionals, in terms of renewal of equipment in hospitals and, above all, in terms of home care hours – about five million extra,” he said.
The Fianna Fail leader also promised to tackle Ireland’s homeless crisis.
“The people want change, why? Very little impact on homelessness over the last number of years by Fine Gael-led governments, very little impact in terms of affordable housing for young people who cannot currently afford to buy houses.”
The debate was originally set to feature only Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin, but RTE expanded the panel to include Mrs McDonald after Sinn Fein registered a series of strong showings in the opinion polls.
The latest poll published on Monday night – by the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI – put Sinn Fein in the lead on 25%, with Fianna Fail on 23% and Fine Gael on 20%.
Despite the surge in popular support, Sinn Fein is still unlikely to emerge as the largest party, as it has only fielded 42 candidates across Ireland’s 39 multi-seat constituencies.
The party’s highest ever poll ratings in the Irish Republic have surprised many observers, given the party has performed poorly in its last three electoral outings south of the border.
The debate was hosted by RTE’s Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullagh.