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Saoirse McHugh and Peter Casey RTÉ

Key moments as migration dominates European elections TV debate

Candidates sparred over the EU’s migration pact and “illegal immigration”.

IMMIGRATION WAS ONE of the touchier subjects of last night’s debate between candidates for Europe, but they also sparred over defence and agriculture.

It was the first of three televised debates by RTÉ leading up to the June vote.

Eight out of the 27 candidates in the Midlands-North West constituency were quizzed on a variety of issues, as broad as their electoral area. 

The constituency takes in 15 counties across three provinces with a population of around  1.8 million people.


Candidates were largely in agreement about their discontentment with the EU migration pact, which will create uniform rules for European countries around international protection applications.

Independent candidate Saoirse McHugh described it as “atrocious”, saying the the root cause of mass migration should be the EU’s focus.

Peader Tóibín of Aontú also said he wouldn’t support it, adding that countries should have “self-determination” on the issue.

In contrast, Fine Gael MEP Maria Walsh said migration must be tackled at a European level to avoid countries playing “political whack-a-mole”.

Sitting Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said that while canvassing, the issue of migration is coming up with “one in two, if not every person you speak with”, adding that illegal immigration needs to be addressed.

Peter Casey, contesting his second European election as an Independent candidate, wouldn’t commit to an EU party just yet but said the far-right Identity and Democracy group is what he would be most aligned with.

Casey has called for the International Protection Office to be closed down and a six-month moratorium to be put on accepting asylum seekers.

He denied being anti-immigrant, having migrated himself several times in his life. He said he always did it legally. However, other candidates brought up past comments of his that contradicted this.

In September 2023, Casey wrote on X: “I was illegal in the USA before I got my L1. Enter a counter [sic.] illegally and you know the risk of getting caught and bounced out.”

Green Party candidate and Senator Pauline Reilly said she will support the EU migration pact if elected despite her party voting against eight of the pact’s ten elements.

She said her party is still concerned that the pact “doesn’t go far enough” with regards to human rights.


All candidates called for a ceasefire in Gaza, but disagreed on the roles Ireland and Europe have to play in the conflict.

Walsh says she will support Ursula von der Leyen’s bid for the European Commission presidency, despite not agreeing with her approach to the conflict in Gaza.

Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, who is running for a third term in Europe, is “skeptical” of Ursula von der Leyen and the direction Europe has taken in defence.

The Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces, Lt Gen Sean Clancy was recently appointed chair of the European Union military committee.

Flanagan said: “Ireland should have nothing to do with the European army.” 

On Gaza, Flanagan said he wants to end the EU-Israel trade agreement.

McHugh echoed this, adding that Ireland should also disallow the United States to use Shannon airport, given its support of Israel.

“The European Union was founded as a peace project. It has won a Nobel Peace Prize. There has to be a momentum for peace coming from Europe,” she said.

Peter Casey disagreed with her on Shannon Airport, saying “if a war starts, Shannon will be the first place to go” and “we have to have the best”.

McHugh replied: “You’re a clown.”

Next Thursday, 30 May, a Prime Time Election Debate special will focus on the Ireland South constituency.

Candidates from the Dublin constituency will debate on Tuesday, 4 June.

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