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GOOD AFTERNOON AND welcome to the penultimate presidential debate between the seven candidates looking to replace Mary McAleese in Áras an Uachtaráin.

The candidates are answering questions submitted by the public in the first ever Newstalk-Google presidential debate which is being broadcast live on Newstalk and on the web. We’re liveblogging all the action. Get in touch via the comments below, on Twitter, or email: hugh@thejournal.ie

Hello and welcome to the liveblog for the penultimate presidential debate taking place at Google’s headquarters in Dublin this afternoon. Newstalk Breakfast’s presenter Ivan Yates will be asking the questions which have been submitted by members of the public via YouTube.

All seven candidates will be taking part in today’s debate. In case you missed it, check our six of the candidates answering TheJournal.ie’s questions in our Quickfire Quiz.

There’s less than 72 hours to polling day so with that in mind we’ve been asking who will get your vote on Thursday.

Ivan Yates is up and introducing the debate live from Google HQ, complete with fancy microphone headpiece jobby. Jonathan Healy is also there and says they will be monitoring social media reaction from Stephen O’Leary, from O’Leary analytics.

First question about hope – teenager who doesn’t see much hope for future, wants to know what candidates will do for young people. Norris answering first says he would put at heart of presidency human rights as well as mental well being, enterprise, culture. Points to his own experience and says he can be inspirational.

Gallagher cites his own experience as well, pressed on what he can do about stopping emigration he says he can follow up on work done by Mary McAleese for trade abroad and bringing it to Ireland. Higgins says he has connected very well with young people during campaign, points to the SpunOut debate where he polled 47 per cent among young people there.

Apologies a few technical difficulties here. Gallagher and Higgins have both answered the question on helping young people and pointed to their prior experience. Higgins mentioned fact he had won spunout.ie debate with 47 per cent share of vote from young people. Mary Davis answering now says she will appoint a young person to Council of State and refutes claim it is tokenism.

Mitchell says he wants to be part of a team that says Ireland is open for business. Says we can make country a better place where we can create jobs and people do not have to emigrate. He has more contacts in Europe and Africa/Caribbean than any other candidate in election and can make use of these.

Mitchell says this is a job for a person that knows politics. Says he will “hit the boards running” if he is elected. Knows all people who are making decision on future of continent and says we need to take “soft options”.

McGuinness invokes the 1916 proclamation and cherishing all of the children equally. Says he has made clear from beginning that he is not interested in presidential salary and says it will go back to people – taking six people of dole queue and paying them. Says he is doing it for greater purpose.

Says Sean Gallagher has been “up to his neck” in Fianna Fáil for years, they ran economy into ground he says, mentions Galway tent and “betrayal” of people of Ireland.

Dana says she is a mother herself and points to European parliament experience, says young people want fairness, a voice and respect. Says this is guaranteed as rights of citizen of the country. She hits back at claims from Yates that she is old school conservative and cannot identify with young people, says decisions being made in EU will deny voice of young people and people of Ireland.

Dana asked if she agrees with same-sex marriage and adoption. Asks candidates if they are all practicing Catholics, no hands go up… awkward… Higgins says question from Dana about religion is not fair.

Norris is in favour of same-sex marriage. Gallagher says he has no issue with same-sex marriage – unsure about adoption by same-sex couples.

Davis is in favour of same-sex marriage and adoption, says she has experience of knowing couple in the US who have adopted child with learning difficulty. Mitchell asked if he is happy with “two mums” he says he will keep open minds but is cautious about same-sex marriage, wants to see how civil partnership works. McGuinness says he wants equality to rule in Ireland, and is in favour of same-sex marriage.

Yates hands over to Jonathan Healy who is summing up the social media reaction. What do you think yourself? Let us know in the comments section below.

Apparently the reaction on Twitter is that the candidates look tired… they’re not wearing make-up apparently, except for the ladies of course…

Attempt to play a video question fails as the sound is gone. Norris takes opportunity to clarify his views on civil partnership bill saying it affords measure of decency to same-sex couples but to exclude existing children from bill was “an abuse of children” which was wrong.

Question that couldn’t be played on video was in relation to the question of whether God should be taken out of constitution. Higgins answering first invokes his family for some reason but pushed to answer he says he hopes people will take part in the constitutional convention to be held in the spring. Says many things in constitution should be looked at such as people under 35 not being allowed to contest presidency. Says it is important to listen to people whilst not directly answering question of whether there God should be taken out.

Norris says it is important to take measured view points to previous experience of taking God out of constitution as proposed by PDs which failed. Says there should be separation of church and state. Davis says she understands diversity being married to a non-Catholic, she says the God issue is one area to be looked at. Mitchell says he has no difficulty with reference to God in constitution says it has created “no difficulties”.

Mitchell would have no issue with mention of God being taken out of presidential oath if that was a candidates preference. McGuinness says he believes in God and says there’s nothing wrong with God being mentioned in constitution.

McGuinness says part of constitution which needs changing is the issue of people in NI not being allowed to vote in Irish presidential election, cites example of Peter Canavan and Tyrone All-Stars not being allowed to vote in election back in 2003.

Gallagher says that any change of constitution needs to involve a formula of words which is all inclusive. Pressed on whether God should be in or out, he says many people have different views of God. Wants equality for all people of all religions or none at all. Dana says she has no problem with other people of other beliefs or no beliefs. Has no problem with reference to God with constitution, says convention being proposed causes concern as it will may not be democratic because of what she witnessed in Europe.

Dana says Labour party wants a secular Ireland, Higgins says this is not true, and says there is no conspiracy with regards to constitutional convention, he also agrees with McGuinness on issue of allowing NI people to vote.

Mitchell says a million Unionists in the North should not be allowed the vote and says that constitutional convention will be democratic as it was in Europe. Dana disagrees with idea that it was, pointing to Nice and Lisbon treaties.

And with that we go to a break…

Nothing massive or new to emerge from the debate so far. Are the candidates saving their ammo for The Frontline tonight? We’ll be liveblogging that too by the way from around 9.30pm.

Norris and Gallagher chatting during the break as are Mitchell and McGuinness. Dana seems to have disappeared. I’m sure she’ll be back.

And Dana is back and so are we. Yates says this is the only debate focused on questions submitted by you (I presume he means the public).

Question now from Cambodia, Alice Burke from Cork who now lives in Phnom Phen, says she left home because she couldn’t get work. Asks for specifics on how president can create jobs….

Gallagher says that McAleese was first president who stepped into role as economic ambassador and working with IDA in attracting inward investment. He says it will be about transforming the role. Refutes allegation he is a “Fianna Fáil builder” as put to him by Yates. Gallagher believes his reputation as entrepreneur will send out a message.

Higgins says that when Mary Robinson was president he accompanied her to Argentina on a trade mission there. He went to Paris to get Irish artists into galleries. In Germany he went to Frankfurt, he’s been to a lot of places. Gallagher comes back in on allegation he is a ‘Fianna Fáil builder’ says it is just not true and is now engaged in a back and forth with Yates, says he was not a builder.

Higgins says he is not going to make negative points about any of the candidates. Going back to his foreign trips, he explains role of president alongside a government minister as he was at the time. Points out he understands the role because of this. Says there is nothing wrong with entrepreneur, but they must be ethical. Yates jumps in and asks does Higgins think Gallagher is “unethical”, Higgins says he is not.

McGuinness asked about Gallagher in the Park with his Fianna Fáil connections. McGuinness says it is important that whoever is elected reinvents the institution. McGuinness points to experience of attracting jobs from America to NI. He says president can work positively with government of day to provide jobs. McGuinness says he has contacts all over the world. He can “lift the phone” to David Cameron and Obama.

Mitchell says construction industry has brought country to its knees and says that he is a businessman, his business is politics. Says he was recently MEP of the Year in the European parliament. Mitchell answers claims he is not being supported by his own party insists he is while making a sly dig at Yates over his recent business troubles, saying he has managed his affairs better than some others.

Davis says she has started a company from scratch with the Special Olympics which made a profit and left a legacy of change.

Dana says she has experience as an entrepreneur in business which she has been in for 30 years. Says she is known worldwide on a first name basis. Points to her own dual citizenship and says this is enticing to Americans she has spoken to. Asked about people who are reluctant to have a candidate involved in “sibling litigation” she says that any family has their difficulties and says members of the press sought “groundless allegations”. Says it has nothing to do with this presidency.

Dana says she is shocked  that Yates would “bring it up on Google”. She’s pretty angry that Yates is as “low level” as some of press in this country.

Dana says she will ensure any hugely important bill like bank guarantee will be brought to attention of people. Norris says that young woman who asked question who was living in Cambodia had brought up a massive problem in that emigration is a big issue at the issue. Points to his own business experience with things like the James Joyce Centre in north Dublin.

Norris asked if he has “failed better” which refers back to his departure speech in August when he left the race only to later return. Says he succeeded in getting a nomination and has no regrets about re-entering the race.

Higgins asked if he agrees with cuts in social welfare and cuts to disability allowance. He says he is not a present member of the Dáil, says it is important you bring experience to the role of presidency. Pressed on whether he supports austerity, he says he does not agree that you can cut your way back to economic growth.

McGuinness asked if it is valid to attack governing party candidates over government cuts. He points to upcoming payments to unguaranteed bondholders, says it is a tragedy. Austerity will impact on most marginalised he says.

Gallagher does not believe it is legitimate to attack governing party candidates on the government’s record. He says it is not a “party political position”. He says whoever is elected will not be a party president.

Gallagher says this election should not be about party politics. Says he is happy to take votes from everywhere, insists he has never been in denial about his Fianna Fáil past. Mitchell says Gallagher is a FF candidate “by proxy”.

Mitchell says that public finances must be brought under control. Davis interjects and says governments are not protecting vulnerable people, she says cuts to special needs are “disgraceful” and says she will have right to speak out if she is president.

Norris says he would accept votes from Fianna Fáil as well! Says he has always been against labelling and insists there are decent people in every party although he does say last two governments have been responsible for bankrupting the country.

Norris speaks about his opposition to bank guarantee. Dana says she will take issue with any case where government is not respecting rights of the people, and points to cuts in special needs where one couple has to carry baby because state won’t provide a pram. Says bank guarantee was agreed without consultation with people, says president has right to raise issues in Oireachtas and with the nation. She is sure no government would stand against what is right for the people.

Yates hands back over to Jonathan Healy who says “hundreds and hundreds” of people are getting in touch over the social media and the like. There’s people in Google Hangouts all over the world and they’re going live to one in the Sheraton in Athlone where a fella there says he’s not very happy with what the candidates are saying. “Very, very disappointed” with the answers, he says.

Lot of feedback has been that candidates are trotting out same old mantras. Biggest word in traffic has been ‘Gallagher’ apparently.

Question about how president would react to issue of Vatican interfering with investigations into child sex abuse in the church.

Gallagher says it is an issue of government, Yates gets annoyed with his answer and says it is “waffle”, Gallagher says role is not to expel someone. Higgins says president is kept informed by Taoiseach under constitution, says it is two-way traffic and president is free to articulate what he or she picks up and what they feel about an issue.

Higgins responds to claim that it was his election to lose and he lost it. Higgins annoyed by question says it will be decided on Thursday which prompts ‘hear hear’ from other candidates.

Davis says protection and safety of children should be central to everything, she gets a brief round of applause from the audience, the first of the debate.

Davis says the church has a lot to answer for and has handled it appallingly. McGuinness says he applauds recent statement of Taoiseach to the Dáil on the Cloyne report, he is also critical of Bishops reaction in Ireland and he says they’re in denial over the issue as they haven’t met since the Cloyne report was published.

McGuinness calls for vast majority of Bishops to be retired and replaced by younger priests.

Mitchell says as president he would make it clear to ambassador from the Vatican that they show respect to institutions of state.

Dana says she would have no hesitation in saying abuse of children was “very wrongly dealt with” and says it was an appalling situation to live with as a practicing Catholic. Says it was a small minority but that one was too many. Says as president you would not be a position to judge who was responsible for the abuse and subsequent cover-up. Says practicing Catholics have carried a burden with this and they are made to feel that they are guilty of this.

Norris says church and State have both been guilty – Magdalene Laundries and Artane. Says he has challenged fact that Papal Nuncio is leader of diplomatic corp in Ireland when other representatives of Vatican could be.

Yates says we’re coming towards the debate…

*end of the debate

Yates asks has race being fought fairly and have media been fair? Dana first in and says that lack of funding from a party makes it difficult to compete for independents, asks for more scrutiny of donations to candidates.

McGuinness says people will decide if he has been fairly treated or not, says around country people have expressed anger to him about his treatment and not just on the Prime Time debate.

McGuinness is asked if he is proud of IRA past, says he is not ashamed of his part. “I stood up when I had to stand up”. He earns a smattering of applause from the audience for that.

Mitchell says he has had character assassination on the social media and says there should be some ethical rules around that. Says there should be a shorter period for campaign and says he has not opened papers in recent days. Asked about his support from Fine Gael, he does not directly answer but says he has won 14 elections in a row and once again remarks that he is a businessman and his business is politics.

Davis responds to questions about her reputation as a quango queen. Says it was a negative campaign which was uncalled for, especially after she was going up in the polls where people sought to damage her campaign. Davis says she wants to be a president who can “embrace the issues”.

Higgins says questions about his age are unfair, he can do nothing about it. He says energy is involved, and he has the intellectual energy as well as physical energy. He has done 28,000km since June campaigning around the country. He went to Colombia last year and had a slight accident, but he was open about it and he’s okay.

Gallagher asked about the focus on him in the last ten days and his past, he says he accepts his has to be introduced to electorate and that his past has to be explored. Says he has found tone of coverage of campaign sensationalist and disappointing. He says he has stopped reading media because of it and says it is not the media who elect the candidate. Does not believe he is “achievement lite”, as put to him by Yates.

Gallagher points to experience as a farmer and as an entrepreneur, also says that he has been unemployed twice and that it drives him to help others.

Norris says that there is a nasty ageism around and he deplores it. Re: negative coverage of his campaign, he points to apologies from two national newspapers and appears reassured by this.

And that’s it, I think. We’re over with Stephen O’Leary from O’Leary Analytics who says that there has been no major shift in sentiment on the Twitter machine as a result of the debate.

And Yates wraps it up with Norris saying he did a very fair job. Ivan hopes for more debates like this, what do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

So did all that help you make your mind up for Thursday’s vote? Let us know in the poll we’re running today. Don’t forget we’re back later tonight with all the action from The Frontline debate, the very last presidential debate. Thank god, says you. We’ll see you all then, your liveblogger is off for a late lunch and a lie down.

About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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