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Saturday 23 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
As it happened: Áras race enters endgame as all six candidates take part in RTÉ Prime Time debate
David McCullagh was on hosting duties in Montrose.

LAST UPDATE | Oct 23rd 2018, 11:53 PM

IN 72 HOURS time, the voting will be all over in the presidential election. 

It means that time is running out for the candidates to make their case and tonight’s RTÉ Prime Time debate was the best chance they’re going to get to influence the outcome.

All six took part and this is how it went down. 

Evening all, Rónán Duffy here. I’ll be liveblogging tonight’s debate and I’m looking forward to a bit of humdinger. 

To be frank, it has to be for any of the incumbent’s five rivals to have a chance in this thing. 

Michael D Higgins has a huge lead in the polls, so large that any result other than a Higgins win would be an upset of unprecedented proportions. 

But as we know in this country, last-minute debate surprises do happen and the five challengers will be hoping for a game-changer tonight. 

Basically, if they’ve any last-minute rabbits to pull out of hats. Tonight is the night to do it.

We’re just over 30 minutes from the start of the debate (9.45pm) and the candidates are already at RTÉ.

In fact, they’ve left the safety of the Montrose dressing rooms to take the positions in the studio. 

A bit early you’d think but enough time to get used to where they, eh, stand. 

The two female candidates are occupying the furthest left positions while the three Dragons are on the right. 

Higgins looks happy enough to be between them. 

RTÉ’s David McCullagh is the man asking the questions and presumably breaking up any unsportsmanlike conduct from the candidates tonight. 

He’s broken out the celestial bling for the evening.

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But if shouty debates aren’t your thing, we’ve also got you covered this evening. In podcast form.’s Sinead O’Carroll sat down with each of the six hopefuls during the course of the campaign to get a sense of who they are and what they want to achieve as president. 

The in-depth interviews threw up some interesting tidbits and some tetchy moments but you can listen to them all at your leisure. 

Click here to listen to all six on Soundcloud

For the record, and for those of you who have decided to ignore the race until this final week, the six candidates are: President Michael D Higgins, Senator Joan Freeman, Liadh Ní Riada MEP, Gavin Duffy, Sean Gallagher and Peter Casey. 

Those final three were all Dragons on the RTÉ version of Dragons Den. 

There have been two other main TV debates in the race so far. The first hosted by Claire Byrne on RTÉ One and the second hosted by Pat Kenny on Virgin Media One

Higgins and Gallagher both didn’t show up for the first debate and were brutally criticised by remaining candidates for not doing so. 

In the second debate, Casey defended his comments about Travellers after they were labelled as racist and went on the attack over Higgins’ spending in the Áras

Sinn Féin’s Ní Riada also said she would wear a poppy if elected president, something which some in her own party have expressed reservations over.

What’s going to be interesting to see tonight is exactly how much Higgins’ challengers go after him directly.

They all say they’re in the race to win it and if that’s true they’re going to need to take a bite out of the huge lead he has.

In addition, it will also be interesting to see if Higgins does swing back at his opponents.

In his interview on’s The Candidate podcast, Higgins criticised the focus on presidential spending and noted that he’s declined to ask those who have been criticising his spending who they’d disinvite from the Áras. 

Higgins probably knows he doesn’t need to get into a shouting match with his opponents, but will he be able to resist throwing the odd barb himself?

Okay, get yourself some tea and biscuits. We’re seconds away from the off now. 

McCullagh goes to Higgins first.

He’s asking about the controversy over the use of the government jet to go to Belfast. 

Higgins said there is “always logistical and security” reasons why decisions are taken but the decision to fly was not his. 

He says he would have preferred to travel by car. 

Gallagher describes it as “a pattern to hide behind security concerns”. 

He mentions homelessness and other issues, says to Higgins that he “knows in his heart” that flying to Belfast was the wrong decision.  

Peter Casey looks to Higgins.

Calls him “a liar” for saying he would serve one term and continuing.

McCullagh says he won’t let people call each other liars.

Casey changes his tack, saying Higgins has been “economical with the truth”.

Higgins is asked by McCullagh if he’s “happy” to have flown in the government jet “as a lifelong socialist”.

Higgins says he is “not happy with any extravagance”.

He is asked directly how many times has he used the government jet this year. 

Higgins doesn’t answer for a few seconds before saying he has used it twice. 

We’re onto Casey’s comments on Travellers.

McCullagh puts it to him that surely they fit the bill of racism.

Casey quotes the Proclamation, as he has done several times, saying he “cherishes all of the children equally”. Adds that he doesn’t think Travellers deserve “special” status.

“I absolutely rejected the concept that I am racist,” he says. 

Casey denies that his comments on Travellers were “an attack”. 

Says he would describe them as “an observation”. 

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Duffy says that Travellers have been recognised as a separate ethnicity by the Dáil and that the president should not be contradicting the Dáil.

“Politicians make mistakes,” Casey responds.

Casey says that Travellers get numerous benefits because of their ethnicity, including “houses and fields”.

Liadh Ní Riada says that he can’t say this as it is not the case. 

Ní Riada is now being asked about comments she made two years ago when she expressed a reluctance to give her daughter the HPV vaccine. 

The candidate says that the comments were made because she felt she had “a lack of information” about the vaccine. She says she was never opposed to the HPV vaccine and is not now.

She says that the HSE has now “stepped up to provide the scientific information we need” about the vaccine.

Repeats that she was “naive” to make the comments she did.

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Gallagher is asked about why he did not express his views on the various referendums and social issues since he came as a runner up in the presidential election in 2011.

He responds by bringing up Tweetgate, says that RTÉ has “learnt lessons” by what happened and argues that he “did not have a mandate” to get involved in political issues since 2011.

There’s a bit of as argument between fellow Dragons Gavin Duffy and Sean Gallagher. 

Duffy said that Gallagher has been claiming to be promoting social entrepreneurship when in fact he is “a commercial landlord”.

Gallagher acknowledges that he “provides space” for businesses and says that people from the private sector should not be precluded from running. 

Freeman gets involved as well, she says that Gallagher is not “giving away space for free”.

Gallagher mentions Michael D Higgins “not turning up” for the first debate and says that he was “sitting at home drinking coffee”. 

Higgins says that he was not drinking coffee, instead saying he had responsibilities as president.

It’s the first time Higgins had spoken in some time. 

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Higgins goes on to defend his media schedule during the campaign. He says that he has been dealing with “innuendo” during the campaign and is unhappy with it.

Gallagher asks him to turn up to the final debate tomorrow on Virgin Media One.

He declines.

Duffy denies his business is spin. Says public relations is not listed on his website. 

Casey is now bringing up Tweetgate. Says that Gallagher effectively “sued the Irish taxpayer” and claims that “RTÉ did nothing wrong”.

Gallagher says they shouldn’t be having a rerun of the 2011 campaign. A couple nod in agreement.  

We’re now going to a break. 

McCullagh looks like he could do with one.

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We’re halfway through and the consensus online seems to be that the debate is a pretty low energy affair and is drifting all over the place.

It’s hard to disagree with that conclusion. 

I don’t think that anyone will be majorly pleased with it, they’ve all had better performances. 

All this of course is probably good news for Higgins. 

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We’re back now and McCullagh is giving Freeman a chance to outline her policies. 

Freeman is the founder of mental health charity and speaks about her experience. 

She claims that others in the campaign are “jumping on the coattails of mental health”, adding, “but I’m the expert”.   

Freeman goes for a big line:

There’s land outside Dublin. It’s called the rest of Ireland.

You can draw your own conclusions. 

Duffy is speaking about his plans for an International Youth Corp where Irish youngsters can travel abroad to represent the country.

“I can assure you, the financing on this won’t be a problem,” he says.

Duffy is also speaking about obesity problems and labels himself as someone who has “yo-yoed” in weight.

Duffy is being asked for details on his Ireland International Youth Corp.

“A lot of young people chop and change college courses,” he says, adding that the corp will give them an opportunity. 

Casey promises to be one of the “most interesting and exciting” presidents if he’s elected.

He also says that he will appoint his wife to the Council of State.

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Higgins is still on the podium. But he’s not saying much.

He’s now being asked about his previous seven years. 

He says that he has not been “responding to change” but has been involved in initiating it.

“A president can initiate a discussion on why a deeply unequal society can repeat itself,” Higgins says.

Ní Riada is now being asked about her comments on saying she would challenge the government while in office. McCullagh asks “is that wise?”.

Ní Riada says that addressing the Oireachtas is an important right the president has.

Higgins cuts across her (notably one of the first times he’s done so) and says he addressed the European Commission on the issue of austerity.

The pair have a little argument as gaeilge. They are the only two fluent Irish speakers in the race.  

Freeman wants to get involved. 

She looks at the three Dragons and says she “doesn’t quite know” what they have promised to do to address issues like addiction and homelessness. 

Gallagher, who has spoken about the problems with his sight, says that if he’s elected Ireland “will become a role model” in how it treats disability.

Casey is asked about his personal taxes.

He says that he has a US Green Card and because of that has to pay a percentage of his worldwide taxes in the US. He says it’s 46% but that he’s attempting to change that to pay personal taxes here. 

He says his Irish companies pay taxes here. 

Gallagher says he pays taxes here but won’t go into details about how much. 

Duffy says he’s “never had an offshore account” and that he has a “single business”.

He says that his taxes are “tight”, unlike the other Dragons. 

Gallagher takes issue with this but Duffy clarified that he meant that he has a single business.

Ní Riada says that she pays €40,000 in tax and gets €60,000 in take home pay from her wage as an MEP. 

McCullagh says that she told Hot Press that she took home “the average industrial wage”. 

Ní Riada says that she gets a “good wage” but that it’s an “average wage”.

She describes the difference as “semantics”. 

Freeman is asked about the funding of her campaign and whether it was a misjudgement to take a loan from an old friend whose company was accused of running a ponzi scheme. 

She says that asking the question was a misjudgement as it was a personal loan, not a loan from his company.

Says to McCullagh that if she got a loan from him it would not be a loan from RTÉ. 

Higgins is now being asked about expenses.

McCullagh asks why further details can be released after the election but not now. 

Higgins says that any change that’s made must be “done properly” and that any change would affected presidents that come thereafter. 

Gallagher says that “the shock and disgrace” of the election has been the unvouched €317,000 fund that’s available to the Áras each year. 

Casey says he will release all his campaign funding tomorrow. 

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Freeman says that it’s “very strange” that all three Dragons have been put standing beside each other in the debate and that they “seem like best friends tonight”.

McCullagh says that the order the candidates were put in was arranged after lots were drawn. 

The candidates are being asked under what circumstances they would refuse to dissolve the Dáil.

Higgins says the president would have the ability to take time to make the decision. 

We’ve run over time.

In fact, the RTÉ Player has given up on in the debate. 

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The candidates were given some quickfire questions to finish the debate. 

Ní Riada is asked what’s the biggest mistake she’s made in her life, jokes that it was “wearing high shoes to this debate”. 

Casey is asked what traits he dislikes about himself. 

“Gosh there’s quite a few,” he says, before settling on working too hard. 

A classic interview answer to finish tonight’s proceedings.

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