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
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