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THE FIRST MAJOR televised debate between Ireland’s hopefuls for European Parliament this year has taken place.

The ‘Big Debate’ on Virgin Media One saw Fine Gael’s Maria Walsh, independent candidate Peter Casey and Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne face off on a number of issues ahead of the election on 24 May.

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty and UKIP Member of the National Assembly for Wales Neil Hamilton – neither of whom are standing – also took part, with broadcaster Pat Kenny on hosting duties.

The debate kicked off at 10pm, and you can see how it went down below.

The debate will also feature contributions from Eamon Dunphy and comedian Jason Byrne.

A pre-recorded segment featuring the pair discussing Brexit will air during tonight’s broadcast.

Here’s a preview:

Peter Casey faces the first question. Kenny asks him what he plans to do as an MEP.

Casey responds by saying he hopes to “inspire people into action” as he sought to do when he ran for President last October.

“You can raise awareness of things that are really important,” he says.

“One of the problems we have is that we can’t afford more people coming into the country who can’t put their shoulder to the wheel.”

Casey claims that immigration means that Ireland will no longer be able to cater properly for those who want to return here from abroad.

“I don’t want asylum seekers who are illegally here,” he adds, hitting out at so-called “welfare tourists” who will come here after Britain leaves the EU.

Maria Walsh second to be questioned. She says she wants to introduce herself to the audience, and refuses to be drawn on the immigration issue.

Kenny asks her what experience she has, saying the Rose of Tralee is not a political role.

“I understand what issues can affect people right across the constituency,” she says.

“I talk about diversity, inclusion and belonging…I’ve had more conversations throughout the world about bringing investment back to Ireland.”

Walsh says it is offensive for Kenny to suggest that the Rose of Tralee, which has empowered women, is not a political role.

Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne responds to Casey’s claim on immigration: he says the housing crisis, not immigration, is the biggest problem facing Ireland today.

Kenny puts it to him that Fine Gael are “running away” with the polls, but Byrne says this is only a snapshot of the reality.

He adds that he is confident people will understand his pro-trade, pro-European message.

Pearse Doherty, who is not standing but is representing Sinn Féin, says the party has four MEPs when Martina Anderson from Northern Ireland is included.

He says the party has a strong track record of delivering upon water charges, and to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland after Brexit.

Kenny says it is “rich” to talk about Brexit when the party has MPs who are absent from the House of Commons, but who take the “Queen’s money” anyway (to cheers of “here here” to other panelists).

He asks what Sinn Féin will do about broadband in Europe.

“We will argue for proper regional investment,” he says, adding that candidates such as Peter Casey want to increase military spending.

“Absolute nonsense!” Casey screams.

Neil Hamilton calls himself “a ghost at a feast” because he has no part in the Irish debate, but supports Casey’s point about a migration crisis in Europe.

“We’re adding a population the size of Wales to our population every ten years,” he says, claiming most come from the EU.

Kenny hits back with a suggestion that most of these come from former British colonies.

oxford Source: Virgin Media One

Politics lecturer Dr Jennifer Cassidy at Oxford University supports Kenny’s claim that most migrants to Britain come from former colonies.

She asks Casey how to implement a system whereby immigrants who work and those who don’t work can be separated, and what Ireland can do when an immigrant who works loses their job.

However, Kenny cuts to a break before Casey gets to answer.

Comedian Jason Byrne and commentator Eamon Dunphy’s segment is shown.

He says he has become “very interested” in Brexit because he works in Britain and Northern Ireland.

“For me, it’s going to be a huge thing,” he says.

“But the thing for me is that… I just don’t think there’s going to be a Brexit. It looks like a divorce. The whole thing looks like a bad divorce.”

“They’re going to keep on doing this for as long as they can, but do we have any power at all?”

Eamon Dunphy says Brexit is “bad news for everybody” but that the “worst news” is for Ireland.

“It’s a lose-lost all the way for us,” he says. “The power or the choice that our government has made is to go all in with Europe.”

Dunphy says Brexit has ruined Ireland’s relationship with the UK, and says that while “nobody knows” if Brexit will happen, it seems inevitable.

Neil Hamilton given the first question after the break. He is asked whether UKIP ever considered the border question when it campaigned for Brexit.

“It’s a totally manufactured political issue,” he says. “It’s something that the EU negotiators have put up to make it possible for Britain to leave the EU.”

He says problems in Northern Ireland are history, and claims they are “not bothered” about low-level smuggling.

Pearse Doherty says Hamilton’s points are bizarre, and ignores cross-border trade, as well as those who travel across the border for health and work and the Good Friday Agreement.

Dr Jennifer Cassidy says half her PhD students in Oxford University will lose their funding when Britain leaves the EU. Hamilton questions whether this is the the case, and is roundly challenged.

Malcolm Byrne says Good Friday Agreement was “greatest political achievement” in the history of Ireland.

He says he worries that Northern Ireland is more divided and more sectarian than it was 20 years ago.

Maria Walsh hits out at “us and them” rhetoric nonsense used by Casey and Hamilton, and receives limited applause from the audience.

“You don’t even know what you want,” she says to louder applause. “The United Kingdom can’t even decide what it wants.”

Casey responds to Walsh by saying borders are necessary in every country in the world.

He says borders need to be enforced, then appears to contradict his previous point by adding that there would be no need for borders if the UK and Ireland did so.

Michael Harding’s pre-recorded segment being shown now.

He hits out at Jacob Rees-Mogg for suggesting there won’t be a hard border.

“This is not a map. This is a place where people live,” Harding says. “This was a war zone. People died here.”

He says that Unionists endured a dirty war, and that Nationalists endured an occupation because of the border.

Harding added that Jacob Rees-Mogg hadn’t a clue where he was when he stood at the border.

Former Green MEP Patricia McKenna contributes from the audience, saying Brexit is “more than likely going to happen”.

She says candidates don’t understand the power of the European Parliament, which can’t fix issues like the housing crisis.

McKenna also questions why Ireland has sided with the EU in the Brexit negotiations.

“The border has been a convenient issue, to make it as convenient as possible,” she says, claiming that Ireland will have “outlived its usefulness” after Brexit.

“MEPs need to know what they’re going to be doing.”

Maria Walsh dismisses suggestion that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been “used as a pawn” and says she will continue to fight on Ireland’s behalf as an MEP.

She says Ireland’s MEPs can make positive contributions on farming, fisheries, and climate change.

Malcolm Byrne says too much of the debate has been given over to Euroscepticism, and cites a poll that shows that 93% of people are pro-European.

“There are enough people in this country who are pro-European and who are ambitious about Ireland’s place in the European Union,” he says.

He hits out at the platforming of anti-European Union issues, and says Ireland needs to talk about its relationship with the EU in a positive context.

Pearse Doherty is asked what he means when he says Sinn Féin is Euro-critical.

He says Fine Gael are increasing contributions to the EU’s defence fund while the Common Agricultural Policy is reduced.

Byrne asks him why Sinn Féin has consistently called for a vote against EU treaties, and says the party continues to bring up the EU defence fund as a defence.

Peter Casey says CAP needs to be replaced by individual agriculture policies for each country.

“50% of our farmers are sad, the other 50% are very sad,” he says.

He ignores calls for him to produce statistics to back this up.

After the third break, Neil Hamilton is asked why Britain claims the EU has damaged the country, when it has done the opposite.

“The one good thing about the EU in the last 40-50 years is we have been able to trade freely with the members of it, and that’s what I want,” Hamilton replies, but adds that he wants to be able to do this with the rest of the world as well.

Kenny asks how this would be possible.

“I can’t talk about a specific trade deal with a specific country…we haven’t reached that stage of the Brexit process,” Hamilton says.

Kenny suggests Nigel Farage is a “one-man wrecking ball” and asks what he is doing by standing to become an MEP.

“He wants to win and get Britain out of the EU,” Hamilton says.

Peter Casey asked whether he is nominally pro-EU but actually wants to leave the bloc.

He returns to the point about immigration, and says Ireland has to have a discussion about this – but should remain in the European Union.

Candidates are asked how they would reduce politicians’ costs.

Malcolm Byrne says there should only be one seat in Ireland in European Parliament.

Pearse Doherty says Sinn Féin will continue to campaign for reduced expenses, and says a lot of reform needs to happen at the heart of Europe.

Candidates now being asked about a carbon tax.

Peter Casey is against the introduction of the tax, while Maria Walsh and Malcolm Byrne say they are in favour.

Pearse Doherty says the tax is proven not to work, and is supported by big business because it pushes responsibility on to individuals.

Kenny claims the tax worked in Denmark (“as well as a tax against water, which you opposed” he adds).

“The problem is, there is no alternative because there is a lack of investment in other services,” Doherty replies.

And that’s it from this evening’s debate. Thanks for following!

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