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Dublin: 17 °C Sunday 9 August, 2020


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Good afternoon! While some of you might be outside enjoying the sunshine, the seven presidential election candidates are sweating it out in their first round-table at RTE Radio centre. Seán O’Rourke is getting ready to grill the full line-up: Mary Davis, Seán Gallagher, Michael D Higgins, Martin McGuinness, Gay Mitchell, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon.

Excited yet?

Michael D Higgins is going to be late.

Mary Davis’s pitch: She’s straight in on her 30-year record standing up for the vulnerable in relation to the Special Olympics. “We need hope, we need a leader…” She’s to be an advocate for Ireland.

Martin McGuinness’s pitch: He draws on the transformation of Northern Ireland. He talks of travelling on trade missions but says he will also focus on opening the Áras to all “victims of the conflict”.

Seán Gallagher’s pitch: He will look to his life experience as an entrepreneur to bring Ireland a “new sense of confidence”. He is another candidate looking abroad too.

Gay Mitchell’s pitch: This is a “crucial time” for our country – he says he has the experience and energy to direct it over the next 7 years.

Dana Rosemary Scallon’s pitch: She says she has represented Ireland on a political and… yes, a showbiz stage internationally. She says people can trust her and that she can represent “all” people.

David Norris’s pitch: He is going to fight on his strengths and fight a “clean fight”. His previous difficulties in the race have made of him a candidate of “tempered steel”.

Michael D Higgins’s pitch: He has made it into the studio at the last minute. He doesn’t sound out of breath. He says he knows how the presidency works, can represent rural and urban but also has lots of international experience.

Questions now to each candidate from Seán O’Rourke. The fun may now commence.

Mary Davis (MD) is asked what extra experience she has listed on her website. She says that she has served on many boards but that these were not-for-profit and that she wanted to give something back to the country.

MD asked if she can develop the office of presidency in any new way. She says it is working well and that she can confidently fill the very large shoes (her words) of President Mary McAleese.

She insists she is a totally independent candidate with no political affiliations whatsoever. She feels fully equipped because she can call on the Council of State for advice as president.

Gay Mitchell (GM) has been asked what went wrong with his campaign in terms of being able to persuade the Fine Gael grassroots. The campaign is only starting now, Seán, says Gay. He believes he will win.

I’ve had to stand up for some of the poorest people in this country and indeed on the face of this earth, says Gay. He has used every office he has held to its utmost limits, he said.

GM says he is not part of the establishment, his father was a labourer.

Seán Gallagher (SG) rejects the assertion that he is an “amateur”. He cites public work in youth services in urban areas. To him, creating jobs is a public service too.

SG says he is relevant to the office because the biggest concern of the country now is emigration and unemployment. “Ireland’s future will not happen to us – we have to go out and create that”.

Asked if he could see himself at a tourism fair, SG says that he wouldn’t call it a fair but yes, that’s going to be part of the job.

Martin McGuinness (MMcG) is asked why he doesn’t think the president should be seen to speak for the Government. He says he is looking forward to travelling “the 32 counties” on the island in the next month and that he will be able to represent them.

He begins to speak about giving back the bulk of the presidential wage but Seán O’Rourke asks if the actions of MMcG and his republican colleagues had not led to expenses that affected the average industrial wage.

The IRA question is in the ring. MMcG says he doesn’t deny being in the IRA at some point but that he left it in 1974 and had been in politics for 30 years.

Sean O’Rourke says his has been the influence of an IRA man in politics. MMcG says he has been at “the forefront of trying to break that cycle” of violence and that he was “totally in tune” with grassroots level. Enter, Nelson Mandela reference.

David Norris (DN) is up next and the first question is about Those Letters.

I answered some of these questions last night, says Norris.

“You ran like a scalded cat” from the media last night, says Seán O’Rourke.

DN says he could prejudice the situation in relation to Ezra Nawi’s 15-year-old statutory rape victim if he released the other letters he wrote looking for clemency for Nawi.

Asked how well-placed he would be to greet Pope Benedict if he comes here for the Eucharistic Congress next year, DN says they have much in common. They are academics and they both have their foibles and Benedict has had his wrist slapped too, he says.

Dana Rosemary Scallon (DRS) is asked why she left it too late to enter the race for the Áras. She says she had 8 deaths in the family in past two years and neither she nor her family had been sure it was the right time.

Asked what she can offer the public, DRS says that the presidency belongs to the people and that she can serve the people. She says she can highlight and be an advocate for the predicaments of ordinary people.

“Embarrassing the government?” asks Seán O’Rourke.

O’Rourke brings up the abortion referendum. DRS says she took a stand of the position against the bishops and the public because she felt they were ill-informed. “Give the people information and let them decide.”

Michael D Higgins (MDH) asked if he has the stamina to be president. “Elder statesman?” Seán O’Rourke doesn’t actually go so far as to enquire if he’ll finish the seven-year term.

Of course, says MDH. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country, I visited Colombia last year in relation to the FARC guerillas situation. I’ve accompanied the president on international advisories. I’m up to it.

On supporting the Government, MDH says he has autonomy – he won’t be spokesperson for the Labour Party.

He says a few words as Gaeilge.

O’Rourke points out that this is now a trilingual programme (DN gave us a blast of Hebrew earlier).

“Maith an fear,” cheers Norris in the background.

Cut to ads.

…Aaaand we’re back.

GM takes issue with the idea of MMcG taking his campaign to the 32 counties. He’s only going to be representing the country of 26  counties, says GM.

MD would like to see the Áras a “very open home”. It should be called Áras na Daoine instead, she says. People matter. The President can show that communities can make a difference.

SG says that he grew up with a sight difficulty and he wants marginalised people to be spoken for. He speaks of carers  and other under-pressure groups he’s met on his “listening tour”. Farmers too – reminds everyone he must be one of the only candidates who ever had his own herd number. Jobs, housing, employment – let’s not let these problems become inter-generational again.

MMcG says he envisages seeing all of his term through at the Áras but obviously he would travel. He feels people in the North feel excited about his nomination and he wants to include them.

Back to the IRA question. MMcG: “My track record as a peacemaker is there for all to see.”

DN is asked how he would cope with a situation where he had to address a political dilemma. He says he has good judgement and that he could deal with the “hard power” of the Presidential role, as Seán O’Rourke refers to it. I know the Constitution, and I know it well, he says.

The same question about legal and political judgement is thrown over to DRS - she says what she doesn’t know, she’ll learn.

“I’m a very fast learner, Seán.”

MDH thinks Article 26 should be looked at. (This is the one which relates to the President being able to refer bills to the Supreme Court in certain special circumstances).

He says he doesn’t have a difficulty with the Constitution as he was a political science lecturer.

DRS comes back in to remind everyone that she was in Europe and had direct legislative experience there.

GM says that while the role of President is not party political, it is by its nature political. He says that 15 bills have been referred to the Supreme Court by previous presidents to test their constitutionality and that in seven of those cases, the bills were found to be unconstitutional.

The President is the “sentry in the box”, he says. Murmurs of assent all round.

MD remembers the time she negotiated with the Government to make sure the Special Olympics World Summer Games happened here when the SARS epidemic threatened to close them.

MMcG reminds everyone that he was involved in negotiating a series of agreements from Hillsborough to Good Friday.

DRS and MMcG speak of commemorating anniversaries such as 1916 with respect and sensitivity to different communities.

SG says we should stop looking to the past and look to the future. Reminds us all that he is the “youngest candidate” in this race. And he wants to be a flare of hope for future generations.

DN brought in “for balance” (of speaking time, we presume, not political views), says he will stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ireland.

MDH talks over Seán O’Rourke’s concluding remarks briefly. DN adds in his assent.

End of debate. Liveline jumps straight in with callers lining up to give their opinion on how the candidates’ performed. (You can tell us what you thought in the comments section below).

We’ll leave it there – but join us back here on this evening as we liveblog the candidates’ performance on RTE1′s PrimeTime tonight. From 9.35pm.

In case you’re wondering, this is how they limbered up outside RTE’s Radio Centre this lunchtime. Michael D Higgins was late so no pic of him yet. And Gay Mitchell managed to slip past. We’ll update as they poses for snappers on the way out, just in case anyone was taking bets on the colour of their ties.

Over and out.

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