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As it happened: Higgins and Gallagher criticised for 'no shows' at first TV debate

Claire Byrne hosted the first televised debate of the presidential campaign tonight.

LAST UPDATE | 15 Oct 2018

ELEVEN DAYS OUT from polling day, four of the six presidential candidates took part in the first TV debate of the campaign on Claire Byrne Live. 

Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Senator Joan Freeman and MEP Liadh Ní Riada took part.

Sean Gallagher and President Michael D Higgins, who declined invitations, came in for criticism from the rest of the field. 

Here’s how the night played out. 

Okay, so we’re almost ready to go. 

The hour-long debate goes to air at 9.35pm. 

Four candidates, Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman and Liadh Ní Riada, are taking part – but all six were invited.

RTÉ has said the invitation remains open for each of the candidates to join their fellow hopefuls in studio right up to broadcast time. 

This evening, President Michael D Higgins has reiterated, however, that he won’t be taking part. 

Sean Gallagher has said he won’t take part in debates where any other candidate refuses to take part. 

Gallagher made his policy known shortly after securing his nomination last month. 

There’s been a row brewing between the two candidates today in the wake of a letter Gallagher sent to Higgins criticising the incumbent’s decision not to appear tonight. 

More on that here… 

While we’re on the subject, here’s what Gavin Duffy had to say last month about the prospect of debates taking place without Michael D Higgins.

“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.
Duffy was answering questions from at the National Ploughing Championships. 

There are two more televised presidential debates scheduled to take place before polling day on Friday week.

All six candidates are expected to take part in a Virgin Media One debate hosted by Pat Kenny on Wednesday and in a Prime Time debate on Tuesday of next week.

RTÉ posted a run-down on how the debate will work earlier today.

There’ll be a live audience, and candidates can expect a few questions from them in addition to Claire… 

The Claire Byrne Live Presidential Debate will have a studio audience of approximately 200 people present on the night.

RTÉ partnered with Amarach Research for the audience selection process. 

Members of the studio audience will be asked to submit potential questions to Amarach Research and a panel including external experts will select the questions to be asked on the night.

It will be a live current affairs debate so there is no set number of questions or topics.

Interesting point here, in RTÉ’s run down of the debate format…

Capture RTÉ RTÉ

The only rules are … there are no rules.


Okay we’re up and running here. 

First of all, Claire gives the candidates a chance to say a thing or two about Michael D Higgins and Sean Gallagher not showing up. 

They all take the opportunity to put the boot in to a greater or lesser degree. 

First laugh of the night goes to Peter Casey, who says it’s a shame the Fianna Fáil candidate hasn’t turned up. 

“He’s not the Fianna Fáil candidate,” Claire Byrne says of Sean Gallagher. 

“Yeah, well,” Casey responds.

The candidates are taking an opportunity to run through a minute-long version of their stump speeches as the debate proper begins. 

Liadh Ní Riada says Michael D Higgins has been remiss in not addressing the Oireachtas. 

Joan Freeman talks up her involvement in Pieta House. 

Gavin Duffy promises better value for money from the presidency – and to bring energy to the role. 

Bit of a flare up of drama here … Claire Byrne reads a message from a spokesperson for President Higgins, taking issue with a claim Peter Casey made about Higgins’ expenses at the start of the programme. 

Casey had claimed Higgins was unable to defend claims about his dog-grooming expenses, during Saturday’s Radio 1 debate. 

The presenter said the spokesperson had sent a message to say Casey was inaccurate. 

Duffy took the opportunity to lay into Byrne: “It’s not your job to be a spokesperson for the President.”

Casey chimed in, saying Higgins should have shown up. 

It does raise a question though… Will Michael D Higgins (or his team) be sending in messages every time they hear something they don’t agree with? 

duffy1 Daragh Daragh

Peter Casey says he would increase representation of women on his Council of State. 

He says he would appoint seven women to the advisory panel.

Asked by Claire Byrne to name specific women, he suggests (after a pause) Joan Freeman. 

Pressed again by the host, he suggests she might like to join the Council of State herself. 

Much laughter from the audience. 

All the candidates are being asked now who they would appoint.

If you need some more info on the Council of State, you might like to have a read of this piece from our archives

Daragh Daragh

A questioner from the audience asks if there are any world leaders any candidate, as president, would refuse to meet. 

Peter Casey says it’s not up to the president, and that the office-holder has to meet whoever the government invites. 

Casey describes President Trump “a national disgrace” in an answer to follow-up questions. 

Ní Riada manages to squeeze in a lengthy list of issues she has with Trump, but says she would also be willing to meet any leader. 

Freeman says we can’t destroy our relationship with the US by refusing to meet Trump.

Gavin Duffy says we need to be prepared to have “difficult conversations” with other world leaders – but agrees that he too would meet Donald Trump or a similarly unpopular leader. 

Interesting question here – the candidate are asked if they would wear a poppy on Armistice Day, which will coincide with the inauguration of the new president. 

Peter Casey says he would. 

Liadh Ní Riada also says she would – adding that it would offer a hand of friendship to unionists. 

Joan Freeman says would wear the poppy. 

Gavin Duffy says he would not, that he would not wear any symbol – but that he would lay a wreath on Armistice Day. 

The first round of applause of the evening greeted Liadh Ní Riada’s statement that she would wear a poppy on Armistice Day. 

The Sinn Féin candidate acknowledged in her answer that there would be some in her party who might not be enamoured with that gesture. 


Someone shouting from the audience – but it’s difficult to make out what the woman is saying. 

Casey says the woman should not have been let in the studio and that he wants to address what she is saying. 

Byrne cuts Casey off, and goes to a commercial break. 

c23 Daragh Daragh

Best zinger of the night goes to Joan Freeman. 

The presenter, during a wider discussion about how invasive presidential campaigns can be, says that Michael D Higgins maintains he no longer has any privacy. 


“Well I think he does because he’s not here tonight.” 


It’s closing statement time. 

Gavin Duffy takes another opportunity to take a pop at Michael D Higgins and Sean Gallagher for not showing up. 

“Please turn up and ask the people of Ireland for their vote. We are.”

Well that’s it for the first TV debate. 

The only real surprise of the night (heckler aside) was Liadh Ní Riada’s statement that she would be prepared to wear a poppy

Otherwise, the candidates played to type with Joan Freeman talking up her experience at mental health charity Pieta House, Peter Casey taking another opportunity to bring up his ‘Birth Right’ programme for children of emigrants and Gavin Duffy insisting the country needs a president with energy. 

The fact that it all played out without the presence of two of the candidates – including the incumbent – meant there was a bit of a sense of anti-climax about the whole thing. 

We go again (as they say) on Wednesday in the Virgin Media One studios, where Pat Kenny will host the first TV debate to feature all six candidates. 

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