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No mudslinging at the Ploughing - but Sean Gallagher was waiting in the wings for Michael D

The 2018 candidates availed of every opportunity to press the flesh today.

Daragh Brophy reports from the National Ploughing Championships:

HIS CAMPAIGN TWITTER account sprang back to life after a seven year gap yesterday – linking to a website asking supporters to register their details. 

As far as Michael D Higgins is concerned, however, the presidential campaign proper won’t kick off for a few days yet. 

Making his traditional visit to the ‘plots’ on the outskirts of the sprawling National Ploughing Championships site near Screggan in Offaly this morning, the president spoke to reporters about farming policy for a good ten minutes before dealing, briefly, with two questions about the upcoming Áras election – now just over a month away. 

“I’ve never run away from a campaign in my life for goodness sake,” he said – insisting that “today belongs to the Ploughing, today belongs to rural Ireland”.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Asked whether he would take part in media debates in the run up to the 26 October vote, he said: 

“All of that has to be settled of course.” His campaign team would discuss that, and it all had to be negotiated, he said. Before his handlers ended the ad-hoc huddle, Higgins added that he hoped the campaign would be about “real issues” and that it would be dignified. 

As always at the Ploughing, Higgins took every available opportunity to work the crowds and press the flesh as he made his way between the various exhibition tents, and on his way to deliver his opening speech at the site’s bandstand.

Not that the president needed a reminder that there’s a campaign on the way, Sean Gallagher, the runner-up in 2011′s contest, manoeuvred himself into prime position at the edge of the stage steps as security cleared a path for Higgins.

Higgins missed him at first, but the pair chatted briefly and shook hands after Gallagher’s presence was pointed out. The businessman said afterwards that the president had thanked him for a note he’d sent to the Áras recently congratulating Higgins on the last seven years, and looking forward to a positive campaign. 

‘Positivity’ has been Gallagher’s watchword since he threw his hat in the presidential ring just a few weeks ago. He’s said several times that his candidacy is not a criticism of the incumbent and insisted today that Michael D Higgins had been “an inspiration” in the last seven years. 

The businessman did, however, place the campaign debates on the agenda at the weekend – telling a Sunday newspaper he’d refuse to take part in any, unless Higgins was present too. 

Speaking today he said:

All debates should be inclusive. If we’re talking about an inclusive society we need to lead by example and that’s about making sure that everybody who is on the ballot paper as a candidate gets fair and due exposure but also questioning – and has the opportunity to lay out their vision for the next seven years, so I think all the candidates should have an opportunity to be at all the debates.

Gallagher proceeded on his way, meeting voters, shaking hands and making time to stop and exchange words. In 2011 he fought his way to the top of the polls largely on the basis of meeting people face-to-face or in small crowds and appealing to them directly. 

Behind him, Higgins left his motorcade parked to the side of the stage and also went on walkabout – attracting a larger crowd. Teenagers, in particular, seemed delighted at the chance to catch a quick photo – and there was a steady stream of people lining up to shake his hand.

‘It’s not a debate without the incumbent’

Sampling the local produce and attracting a crowd of his own over at the Co Offaly tent, candidate Gavin Duffy gave his take on the debate question in more direct terms.

“It’s not a debate without the incumbent. It is people showing up to sort of explain themselves and the broadcaster or the media outlet trying to explain why the incumbent is not honouring them with their presence. 

I’m happy to comment on it – but I just don’t see it as a runner, you could not have a debate without the incumbent, particularly when as we’ve seen from the media yourselves you have so many questions that you want to address.

He added: “Look, I don’t think President Higgins will deny the people of Ireland an opportunity to hear why he’s looking to contest the next seven years and what he’s going to offer in the next seven years.”

Duffy, like Gallagher, is best known for his appearances on the Dragon’s Den TV show. On the basis of his approach today, though – he’ll be taking a slightly more animated approach to on-the-ground campaigning. Gallagher tends to speak quietly, gripping voters’ hands as he talks to them; Duffy’s more likely to work the entire room at once – waving at well-wishers and improvising photo-ops. 

Debates

Earlier, Joan Freeman spoke briefly with reporters before making her way around the site. The Pieta House founder and senator said she agreed that Higgins should take full part in the upcoming debates.

Asked whether she would take part even if the incumbent wasn’t present she said: “If the debates go on, absolutely I will take part in them regardless.”

Higgins has said he will give more detail on his campaign plans when he lodges his nomination papers. Deadline day is Wednesday of next week. 

And while he hasn’t said anything publicly about TV or radio debates, he has said a number of times in recent months that he won’t “run away” from a contest once the campaign proper is under way. 

Voters, no doubt, will expect Higgins to take part in some debates – even if the number of set-piece events may be slimmed down compared to 2011 when there was no incumbent contesting the poll.

We have to look all the way back to 1966 to find an example of the last time an incumbent in the presidency stood for re-election. On that occasion Eamon de Valera declined to debate with his Fine Gael opponent – and came within a whisker of losing.

It hardly needs to be said that the media and political landscape has changed utterly in the last half century and there’s little chance of Michael D Higgins attempting something similar. 

The Ploughing Championships continue here in Co Offaly for the next two days. Liadh Ní Riada, the Sinn Féin candidate, is expected to visit tomorrow. Peter Casey, the third Dragon’s Den investor hoping to get on the ballot for this year’s election, is also likely to make the trip down at some stage – he’s been busy so far this week mopping up the required council nominations.

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