The gloves come off for Aras can­di­dates in ra­dio de­bate

First show­down be­tween all six can­di­dates for the pres­i­dency ul­ti­mately de­liv­ered more heat than light, writes Eilis O’Han­lon

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Today In Your - Alan O’Ke­effe

PRES­I­DEN­TIAL can­di­date Peter Casey has said he doesn’t think can­di­dates were too hard on Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins dur­ing yes­ter­day’s RTE ra­dio de­bate.

“I don’t think peo­ple were gang­ing up,” said Casey. “He didn’t show up be­fore and he’s not show­ing up for the next de­bate so I think it’s fair game.”

He said the Pres­i­dent, who spent the open­ing min­utes fend­ing off ques­tions on pres­i­den­tial fi­nances, had “far too much time” on air.

“I’d like to see what the tim­ing worked out at. It seemed that he got a lot more time than the rest of us,” he said.

He said the Pres­i­dent still has “a lot of ex­plain­ing to do” about how tax­pay­ers’ money is spent. “He was very clearly un­com­fort­able when we started prob­ing.”

Asked if dis­re­spect was shown to Pres­i­dent Hig­gins, he said: “Ab­so­lutely not. I think he was dis­re­spect­ful to some… That’s de­bate. Every­one is equal in that de­bat­ing room.” He did not think it un­fair to raise the age ques­tion, say­ing: “It’s not my fault he is the age he is.”

Gavin Duffy said there was no agree­ment among can­di­dates to go af­ter the Pres­i­dent but said he felt “slightly un­com­fort­able” about the fo­cus on Pres­i­dent Hig­gins. He said the Pres­i­dent told him af­ter­wards that he felt he was “the cen­tre of at­ten­tion” for a while. Duffy said he stood by his ear­lier claim about RTE be­ing a ‘Michael D fan club’. He said it was 52 years since an in­cum­bent fought a pres­i­den­tial election and it was time “to look at the rules of en­gage­ment when there is an in­cum­bent”.

Pres­i­dent Hig­gins de­cided to turn his on-air grilling to his ad­van­tage, com­ment­ing af­ter­wards: “That’s great, an­other one that we can blow out of the wa­ter and that is that Michael D Hig­gins doesn’t get hard ques­tions.

“I’ve been an­swer­ing hard ques­tions since 1969.”

Joan Free­man was un­happy, say­ing: “I think we lost our lis­ten­ers for the first 20 min­utes be­cause it all re­volved around fi­nance, bud­gets, and busi­ness that the Dragons had. We lost the plot there.”

She brought up, again, how 200,000 were mo­bilised by the Dark­ness into Light walks she or­gan­ised and how thou­sands of lives were saved by her sui­cide pre­ven­tion char­ity. “The fo­cus on the econ­omy and Dragon busi­nesses — we need to stop do­ing that.”

Li­adh Ni Ri­ada said the ex­pected non-ap­pear­ance of three can­di­dates in to­mor­row night’s TV de­bate was “a huge dis­ser­vice to the Ir­ish peo­ple”.

She con­firmed her an­i­mos­ity to the State’s Lear jet and its huge car­bon foot­print, stat­ing she would get rid of it.

Sean Gal­lagher said re­marks about Pres­i­dent Hig­gins’s age were out­side his own core value of re­spect for oth­ers. The Pres­i­dent’s age was “ir­rel­e­vant”. When asked about the Pres­i­dent’s ‘unas­sail­able’ 70pc poll lead and if he had some­thing to pull out of his back pocket, he re­called ‘tweet­gate’ in 2011, declar­ing: “I am liv­ing proof that un­prece­dented things can hap­pen in the clos­ing days of cam­paigns.”

RTE gave it a build-up usu­ally re­served for big sport­ing clashes such as Conor McGre­gor’s re­cent UFC show­down in Las Ve­gas.

In the event, the first live pres­i­den­tial de­bate be­tween all six can­di­dates on Ra­dio One’s Satur­day With Cor­mac O hEadhra wasn’t quite as bel­liger­ent as that now no­to­ri­ous clash, but at times it did threaten to go that way.

Pro­ceed­ings had barely got un­der way be­fore the other con­tenders were pil- ing in to Michael D Hig­gins over his salary; his use of the Govern­ment Lear­jet to make short hops up to Belfast; the ex­penses of the Of­fice of the Pres­i­dent, in­clud­ing €3,000a-night ho­tels.

On TV, this could have eas­ily looked like the big sporty boys in the play­ground gang­ing up on the weedy, book­ish kid.

In re­al­ity, of course, Michael D is more like the head­mas­ter, and should have been bet­ter pre­pared to be put on the spot.

He didn’t come across as match fit at all, floun­der­ing fre­quently and tak­ing refuge, as is his wont, in pretty-sound­ing waf­fle.

“The ap­pro­pri­ate way to do this is a way that is ap­pro­pri­ate,” he even said. Well, you can’t ar­gue with that.

O hEadhra lost con­trol of the de­bate at times, but there were six peo­ple in the stu­dio, and only an hour to deal with the is­sues each of their can­di­da­cies has raised. It was im­pos­si­ble to sat­isfy every­one, but he did have one slyly killer ques­tion to the Pres­i­dent: “When did you re­alise that value for money could be bet­ter?” Ouch.

The only other time Hig­gins sounded that un­com­fort­able was when ad­mit­ting that he might now, with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, “re­word” his state­ment hail­ing Cuban com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor Fidel Cas­tro on his death as a “gi­ant amongst po­lit­i­cal lead­ers”.

He didn’t need to win, though. He has the ad­van­tage of be­ing in pole po­si­tion.

It was his ri­vals who needed to make a splash.

Most of the run­ning was done by Done­gal busi­ness­man Peter Casey, who came across like an ex­citable Jack Rus­sell, nip­ping at the Pres­i­dent’s heels when­ever he got the chance.

Dur­ing the dis­cus­sion on pres­i­den­tial ex­penses, Casey went so far as to com­plain: “Even your dog groom­ing bills are cov­ered.”

There’s a man who doesn’t have his finger on the senti- men­tal pulse of the dog-lov­ing Ir­ish. Bring­ing up the Pres­i­dent’s age was a low blow too.

Casey’s fel­low Dragon’s Den co­horts strug­gled to be heard as loudly. It was easy to for­get that Gavin Duffy was there at all, whilst Sean Gal­lagher, who came within a whisker of win­ning in 2011 un­til RTE and Sinn Fein to­gether ban­jaxed his cam­paign at the last mo­ment on false, in­deed faked, pre­tences, sounded lack­lus­tre, as if al­ready re­signed to de­feat.

If any­one needs the fil­lip that an ap­pear­ance on Claire Byrne Live on RTE TV to­mor­row would bring, it’s Gal­lagher, but he still in­sists he won’t be there. Nor will Michael D.

It’s go­ing to be like Ham­let without the Prince. Or the King. Sinn Fein’s Li­adh Ni Ri­ada will no doubt seize the op­por­tu­nity to present her­self as the big fish in the small pond of can­di­dates. Yes­ter­day she os­cil­lated be­tween a de­sire to come across as a se­ri­ous heavy­weight, and want­ing to play the rad­i­cal chal­lenger to the “cosy con­sen­sus”.

She was less spe­cific about what she could do in of­fice.

“For me, it’s about Ir­ish unity,” was how she be­gan her fi­nal pitch. Er, no, it isn’t.

She also de­clared that Pales­tine would be “one of the first coun­tries I’d visit”, mo­men­tar­ily for­get­ting that she wouldn’t be al­lowed to leave the coun­try without the ap­proval of the Govern­ment.

The fi­nal can­di­date was in­de­pen­dent Joan Free­man, founder of Pi­eta House, as she pointed out prac­ti­cally ev­ery time she spoke – and to be fair, if you’ve got a unique sell­ing point flaunt it.

She seemed con­fused about the con­sti­tu­tional role of the Pres­i­dent, but does it mat­ter? It’s about elect­ing a head of state, not a pro­fes­sor of ju­rispru­dence. That’s why the Pres­i­dent has a Coun­cil of State, to guide them through the le­gal maze.

The Pres­i­dent’s job is to waft around the world, wav­ing and giv­ing speeches.

This first de­bate be­tween all six can­di­dates most likely won’t have in­spired enough peo­ple to switch horses.

A dis­cus­sion about their val­ues and char­ac­ters would have been more in­sight­ful, in­stead of this frac­tious de­scent into the po­lit­i­cally charged nitty-gritty.

Michael D re­mains on course to re­turn to the Aras on a metaphor­i­cal Lear­jet of ap­a­thy and syco­phancy. Ni Ri­ada’s cham­pion work in tak­ing out the other can­di­dates will serve only to make his vic­tory more con­vinc­ing.

It’s 2011 all over again.

‘Michael D Hig­gins didn’t need to win this de­bate... his ri­vals did’

FIGHT­ING TALK: Can­di­dates Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Free­man, Sean Gal­lagher, Michael D Hig­gins and Li­adh Ni Ri­ada in RTE. Photo: Tony Gavin

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