Pat Kenny moderated the six-way debate on Virgin Media One.
WE’RE JUST OVER a week away from polling day and tonight all six candidates in the presidential election faced off for the first time in a TV studio.
Tonight’s Virgin Media One debate, moderated by Pat Kenny, followed Saturday’s six-way radio debate and Monday’s RTÉ TV debate hosted by Claire Byrne.
Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Senator Joan Freeman, Sean Gallagher, President Michael D Higgins and MEP Liadh Ní Riada all took part.
And so, in an industrial estate on the edge of the M50, the six battle-weary candidates once again enter the arena of conflict.
Okay, that’s probably a little too Game of Thrones, as openers go.
We’ll try again.
Welcome along folks, it’s the Virgin Media One presidential debate chaired by Pat Kenny.
No need to switch over right away – unless you’re a fan of Gogglebox Ireland, in which case be our guest! – the show doesn’t start till 10.
In case you were wondering – all six candidates are set to appear tonight, after Michael D Higgins and Sean Gallagher sat out Monday night’s Claire Byrne-hosted debate.
The stage is set and the candidates began arriving at Ballymount in the last hour or so.
Gavin Duffy, Liadh Ní Riada and Sean Gallagher both took another opportunity to criticise Peter Casey for his comments about Travellers as they arrived, according to reporters at Ballymount.
Michael D Higgins and Joan Freeman chose not to answer questions on their way in.
Earlier, all five candidates rounded on Casey over his remarks.
In case you spent most of the day living under a rock (we’re a little jealous if you did, frankly) Casey threw a grenade into the presidential race by saying that Travellers should not be recognised as an ethnic minority because they are “basically people camping in someone else’s land”, and that Travellers are “not paying their fair share of taxes in society”.
Casey announced earlier that tomorrow he plans to travel to a Tipperary housing estate at the centre of a dispute between a Traveller family and the local council.
This will be the first time Sean Gallagher and Pat Kenny have been part of the same TV programme since the infamous Frontline debate of the 2011 campaign.
The candidate, who took RTÉ to court over how that programme was handled, addressed his own failings on that night in his first appearance on the campaign trail this year, speaking to Leitrim Co Council.
Claims that Gallagher had once collected a cheque for €5,000 for a Fianna Fáil fundraiser derailed the Dragon’s Den star’s campaign during the 2011 debate – which was the last set-piece media event of that campaign
He initially dismissed them when they were raised in the programme by Martin McGuinness.
Later, Kenny raised the issue again saying that a tweet had been issued from an account apparently linked to the Sinn Féin candidate, claiming that the man Gallagher picked the cheque up from would be at a press conference the following day.
Gallagher stumbled in his response to the false tweet, saying he had “no recollection” of the events described. His reply was met with hoots of derision from the studio audience.
The businessman later launched a legal action – and last December the national broadcaster apologised to him and agreed to pay out “substantial damages” over the incident.
As part of the settlement an apology from RTÉ was read out in court, in which the broadcaster accepted it should have verified the origin of the tweet which was read to the candidate on air.
“On that evening I let myself down and I let you the members of this council down and for that I am truly sorry,” Gallagher said last month.
Kenny has said this week that there won’t be any live tweets read out while the programme is taking place.
“I can’t regret being professional on the night. I have expressed the view publicly, that there was no finding against me or the core Frontline team,” he told The Irish Sun.
The veteran broadcaster and the businessman are on good terms these days after making up in recent years, it appears.
Again from the Sun:
“Sean was in being interviewed for the (Newstalk) breakfast programme, he just approached my desk and offered his hand and I was happy to shake it.”
Back at the studio, Joan Freeman’s looking relaxed…
As is Liadh Ní Riada…
Not sure why Ní Riada had her coat on in the sound check.
Is it very cold in the Virgin Media One studio?
Perhaps Pat Kenny insists on a cool temperature to keep everyone awake, like David Letterman used to?
Can someone help Cathal?
He must be delighted at being able to stay up this late, all the same.
Some things to look out for…
How will Michael D Higgins cope with what might amount to a five-way attack from the other candidates – and will the other hopefuls join Casey in taking the gloves off to take on the incumbent?
Can Gavin Duffy bring his years of experience in media training to bear and make some kind of breakthrough with voters?
Will Sean Gallagher be able to convince the voters who backed him seven years ago to do so again?
Will Liadh Ní Riada be able to get her message across and up her poll ratings to enough of a degree to justify Sinn Féin’s decision to enter a candidate?
Will Joan Freeman, who has pitched herself as the mental health candidate, manage to come up with a strategy to ensure that that resonates with voters?
And to what degree will Peter Casey double down on his much-criticised comments about Travellers?
Peter Casey begins with his one minute pitch, focusing on the Irish diaspora around he world.
Sean Gallagher says that if people want a departure from the last seven years they should vote for him. He mentions the word ‘energy’ twice.
Liadh Ní Riada says she wants to challenge the establishment and the ‘cosy consensus’. She wants to be an outspoken president.
Joan Freeman says voters have been told there’s only one possible outcome – that Michael D Higgins will be reelected. The government didn’t want an election, but it’s time to smash the status quo, she says.
Gavin Duffy begins his pitch in Irish. By being ambitious for Ireland there is no barrier to what we can achieve, he says.
Michael D Higgins, going last, says he hopes that together we can help Ireland achieve its potential as a real republic. He hopes to spark conversation and change and to speak with authenticity at home and abroad.
Kenny explains that all six microphones will be open at all times.
Kenny moving on to the Traveller question now, turning to Casey.
The businessman says he hasn’t backed down from his controversial comments as Ireland is now a “melting pot”, and one group shouldn’t be chosen as “special” and granted ethnicity (Traveller ethnicity was recognised rather than granted by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2017).
“You can’t please all of the people all of the time” Casey says, when Kenny points out that Travellers wouldn’t want him as president.
Casey talks at length about the row over Council-built houses in Tipperary.
Duffy and Freeman both criticising Casey once again for his comments – but Freeman says the topic shouldn’t dominate tonight’s debate.
Here’s what the set looks like, by the way…
How many of you would actually like to have a Traveller encampment next door, Kenny asks?
Higgins says he has a halting site near his house and that he has no problem with it.
Casey chips in and says that Higgins objected to a halting site in a planning objection in 1968.
Higgins says it’s an absolute untruth.
Asked the same question, Duffy says he has lived near halting sites.
Freeman and Ní Riada say they would have no problem with a halting site nearby. Gallagher concurs.
Casey, to a smattering of applause, says the rest of the candidates are being disingenuous.
Gallagher accuses Casey of being racist, again to applause.
The debate moves on.
We’re on familiar old ground now… Higgins and Gallagher coming in for criticism for not taking part in Monday’s debate.
Ní Riada, again using a familiar line, asks Gallagher where he has been for the last seven years.
Gallagher begins his answer by taking us back to the aftermath of the 2011 race – he’s already been accused of ‘living in 2011′ by Duffy – but Freeman cuts him off, and has another go at him for skipping Monday’s outing.
We’re on an actual commercial break now… A quick check of the Twitter machine tells us Casey’s “giving chocolate to a diabetic” remark is getting a bit of reaction out there.
Casey, so far, has been unrepentant about his comments – and going by applause there are plenty in the audience who like what they’re hearing from him.
Elsewhere on the Twitter machine:
Freeman going on the attack against Higgins now – pouring scorn on the President’s contention that he’s an independent.
Higgins is being backed by Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil she points out.
“I’m a real independent.”
Higgins chimes in, pointing out that the Social Democrats and others also back him.
Decent move turning the criticism around – he’s basically pointing out that most of the parties in the Dáil think he’s the man for the job.
Ní Riada bringing out another familiar argument – saying Higgins has been remiss in not addressing the Oireachtas during his seven year term.
The Sinn Féin candidate brought this up in Saturday’s radio debate too saying she felt there has been “a failure to address the Houses” by the current president, adding that she would exercise this right more frequently.
Higgins defended not doing so during his seven years, arguing that any such address would require government approval.
Confused about the whole thing? Handily, we’ve already done a FactCheck…
Kenny gets an unexpected jab in now – calling Duffy “kind of the posh boy” of the campaign because of his association with hunting groups.
Another commercial break.
While we’re watching the lovely commercials, you may like to read another wonderful FactCheck about whether or not the taxpayer funds the President’s dog-grooming bills.
Casey brought this accusation up in previous debates, prompting a Higgins spokesperson to send a rebuttal in to the RTÉ TV debate on Monday (which Higgins did not attend).
We’re back, and we’ve our first question from the audience about how the presidential candidates would help solve the housing crisis.
Peter Casey says the president can use their position as “influencer in chief” to help bring about change, while Joan Freeman outlines the depth of the crisis before saying its the president’s duty to highlight the issue and inspire charities to help.
Gallagher says the honest answer is the president can do little about housing, but that the president can speak for the people about the seriousness of the issue.
Ní Riada says she would address the Houses of Oireachtas on the issue.
Duffy, answering the question, insists on bringing up the sale of AIB and says the government needs to hold off on the sale.
Casey points out “as president you can’t do that”.
Duffy says he knows, but he’s determined to speak about it to raise the issue.
On the question about homelessness, Higgins says he’s been raising the issue in speeches several times in recent years.
We need a debate on whether shelter is a basic right, he says.
Asked, by show of hands, who was in favour of water charges – Casey, Gallagher and Duffy say they were.
Higgins says that as an incumbent President he wasn’t – and isn’t – allowed have a public view.
You may recall Higgins came in for attack several times at the height of the water charges protests in 2014.
Peter Casey going on attack again over the President’s decision to take a jet to Belfast for an engagement and have a car meet him there.
Higgins says the travel arrangement was made due to security concerns.
The President making a rare direct attack on another candidate now – saying that Casey seems to have a “fantasy list” of charges against him.
It’s part of a long (inevitable) row over expenses and salary.
Applause for Higgins after Casey chimes in with another claim.
“Just add it to the list,” he says.
Another question from the audience here now – how would the candidates get on with the government of the day in the next seven years?
Peter Casey agrees with Pat Kenny’s suggestion that he would “toe the line”, while Liadh Ní Riada says she would be non-partisan and represent the people.
This question isn’t providing much by way of fireworks so far.
Answering the same question Freeman says there are four millionaires standing next to her (she’s including Higgins as well as the four Dragons), and takes issue with the criticism she’s received to date over how she funds her campaign.
Duffy tells the audience questioner voters “don’t need to lose sleep” over how he’d get on with governments as president.
Gallagher says the President needs to work with the government of the day, and stresses he wants to represent Irish people across the whole island.
Higgins points out that he resigned from Labour when he took office. “You don’t turn yourself into a blank page” when you become president, he adds.
The last question is, essentially … Is this whole debate a waste of time considering Michael D Higgins is on course to romp home?
Duffy says he had been assured by an associate of Gallagher that the 2011 hopeful wasn’t entering the race and adds that Casey’s candidacy was a total surprise to him.
He concedes it is a little odd that three personalities from Dragon’s Den are in the race.
Casey an Gallagher both defend their decisions to enter the race too.
Freeman, by the way, also defended the decision to enter – pointing out that she was the only person who’d had to fund their campaign with a loan.
Ní Riada also defends Sinn Féin’s decision to enter the race before Duffy interrupts and accuses Michael D Higgins of staying too long in the role.
We’re about to wrap up.
Higgins making the case for keeping him on in the Áras, insisting he’s the best man for the job as we proceed with the decade of centenaries.
And we’re out.
No matter who you vote for, make sure you exercise your vote on 26 October, Pat says.
I’m sure I probably won’t be alone if I suggest we didn’t learn anything particularly new in that debate?
Yep, that seems about right.
We’ll leave it there so.