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Dublin: 8°C Tuesday 7 December 2021


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HELLO FROM THE Sugar Club in Dublin city centre, scene of the latest Presidential campaign debate 2011. The photographers are outside on the red carpet waiting for the seven candidates to arrive for the Today FM’s The Last Word debate, hosted by Matt Cooper.

You’ll be able to listen in on Today FM from 4.30-7pm but we’ll be your eyes here at the club as we liveblog the whole debate…

David Norris has just popped his head in the door to shake Matt Cooper’s hand. No sign of the other six yet.

The idea is that Matt Cooper will host the debate between 4.30 and 5.30pm and then the audience here in the Sugar Club will be able to answer questions from then onwards.

All the candidates are on the podium now with Matt, putting their best side forward for the camera.. Mary Davis in red and black, Dana is wearing the blue jacket-print dress combo that she wore on her way into the RTE studios for the Late Late debate but then changed out of for the actual debate, Sean Gallagher is in black with red striped tie, Gay Mitchell is in black suit, pale salmon (!) tie (sorry, not a fashion blog…), Martin McGuinness in grey suit, green spotted tie, Michael D Higgins in pinstripe and paisley tie and David Norris is wearing a dark suit, red tie and handkerchief.

And we’re off! No burlesque tonight, says Matt Cooper. We’ll see.

There’s Matt’s *horn*. An actual horn, as one might find on a vintage car.

First question to Dana Rosemary Scallon (DRS) on whether the country is better than it was in the past.

DRS says she has always been personally tolerant, “live and let live”. She doesn’t judge those who she doesn’t agree with. But she’s reluctant to move away from the economic issues. Mentions ‘they’ are moving ‘again’ and the misery/fallout of people feeling helpless.

And she takes a well-deserved sip of tea.

Martin McGuinness (MMcG) is asked if he thinks the Republic of Ireland is a good place to live/move to. He talks about the “selfishness” of the Celtic Tiger years and the “two-tier” system it led to. We’ve grown up as a nation but it’s a difficult time. He thinks being positive and constructive is the way forward as it was in Northern Ireland.

Sean Gallagher (SG) is asked how responsible he feels, as a business person, for the greed of the boom.

SG responds that it was individuals who behaved in a reckless way but also that a culture sprang up where community was less important. He says we are returning to “a degree of common decency”.

Matt Cooper asks why SG is talking down what we did in the boom years. References bringing the Special Olympics in 2003. Mary Davis doesn’t smile broadly but she might well be on the inside…

SG says he’s not but that the focus on community is more important now than ever.

Michael D Higgins (MDH) says we need to be accurate about the boom and that it was a time of “fissure” when some people became poorer, not richer. But we need to move on and to get to a new place, we need a “radically inclusive citizenship” which doesn’t base a person’s worth on what they own.

But some good things happened, MDH feels – we are more environmentally aware, better educated but less inclusive, less community-focused.

There are things the President can do as “not the handmaiden nor the automatic critic of the Government”.

Gay Mitchell (GM) speaks of his family background when his father died young but he was lucky to become educated. This is not the case for swathes of society today still, he says.

He welcomes the changes to Ireland and welcomes immigration because it has made us appreciative of our heritage.

Matt brings him back to equality legislation in terms of homosexuality etc. GM says that that much of this legislation was forced on us by EU – but that was a good thing and needed.

Mary Davis (MD) asks if we have become a more equal society. Yes, says MD, but we have a “long long way to go”. The abuse of children, the neglect of older people in terms of isolation, lack of rural transport etc., young people who feel divorced from government, illiteracy… we shouldn’t have issues like these in modern Ireland.

David Norris (DN) asks how much further we need to go to make this a society of which we can all be proud.

DN mentions that he and Mary Robinson committed to creating equality and that he drafted the first civil partnership bill. He says he is heartened to see Irish celebrities and figures able to express their personal life in a way that would have simply been considered illegal.

DN puts forward his enterprise, culture, mental health troika of platforms for his candidacy.

SG wants us all to get over our negativity. He wants us to take more risks.

MC: Is taking risks not what got this country into a mess?

SG: I don’t mean in business, I mean in education, society. I see heroes who need to be celebrated and I want to change the national conversation away from what we can’t do.

MC: What do you like about, first, the people in the Republic?

MMcG: Let’s stop this partitionist talk.

Laughter and applause in the club but MMcG is keeping his smile under wraps.

MMcG says the negative characteristics of the Irish he can only pick on is that displayed by those previously in Government.

He thinks the Irish people in general have “wised up” to the scoundrels.

DRS thinks we don’t like exposing cracks in our society and that’s why she entered the Presidential race previously. She met a young mum of three this morning who is in a bad way because of the cutbacks on special needs assistants in schools.

MD says the reputation of Ireland has been damaged but by us talking ourselves down. And she’s working across 58 countries, so she should know, she says.

Is feidir linn if we have the self-belief. (The Gaeilge bit is mine).

DN says we are afflicted with the “backward look” as Frank O’Connor would have said. (O’Connor, he of the short story genius. Remember Guests of the Nation? The First Communion?)

He doesn’t agree though that our reputation has been damaged. And he tells MMcG that he (DN) is too modest to assume he would be President of a 32-county Ireland.

GM getting a bit tongue-tied trying to explain how we have to be ambitious like when he wanted the Olympics to come to Ireland.

MC: But they didn’t come here.

GM: Well, no, well, we got “some” Olympics.

Does he mean the Special Olympics? Mary Davis seems to think so. She has done an intake of breath. As has the audience.

MDH is talking about how the Irish has great creativity and are innovative. But he warns: “We have had a flair for imitation” and not for innovation. We must change that culture and get away from “clapped out models”.

Break time here. DRS and MMcG having a good old chat and SG left on his own to spark up some chat with Matt Cooper. DN and MD are having a bit of a laugh and MDH and GM are getting their pic taken. They look terribly jolly which is nice to see because we’re all a bit worried about poor MDH who is squeezed in at the end of the table with barely a place to put his notebook.

How strange it must be for the candidates who can hear themselves speaking on snatches of the debate being played back during the TodayFM news headlines.

By the way, you can listen into the debate here. But you can’t see how the candidates all look like with their massive headphones on.

Ooooo competition time. Spot prize in the house too? Glad I came now.

Higgins says he will be president of all the people. “I will be resigning from party if I become president”…

Higgins: One of my last votes in Dail was against bank guarantee, points out Martin McGuinness’s party voted for it.

Won’t comment on Wikileaks and the allegation that Gilmore said there would be another Lisbon referendum. Higgins wishes people in NI could vote… opportunity in constitutional convention. Higgins wants people in NI to have vote and some Irish people abroad. Election is about constitution as it is now. Age of 35 should be changed. Nomination procedure should change.

DRS and MMcG both want to get in but GM wants to talk about the President being elected as rep of Éire. He says he wants to unite people but that he is a nationalist as in ‘nacio’ as in a particular nation. He would be disposed to a united Ireland, even if we had to come to some agreement with the Commonwealth?

Everyone will be welcome in the Áras if he’s in there regardless of religion, race and culture and sexuality,

MMcG says many powerful things have happened in the past ten years. He met with a group of people representing those injured in IRA activities. They shook his hand, he said.

And no, he doesn’t want to rejoin the Commonwealth.

DRS asks if Matt Cooper said ‘Breast of Britain’ instead of ‘Best of Britain’ Perhaps the Sugar Club environment is having an effect on us all.

Also, MDH didn’t answer the question about Nice and Lisbon 2, she maintains – which she takes to mean he supported them. MDH is saying nothing. He’s pouring a glass of water for GM.

GM says we have to stop being inward-focused and we can’t be “staying out” of the European Union.

“Who’s saying anything about staying out of the EU,” asks MC.

MC asks MDH if supported Nice and Lisbon. Not sure MDH is answering. He’s not a “conspiracy theorist” he says and that people should take responsibility individually and not be raking over who was where during Lisbon and Nice treaties.

“I am a European because I am in favour of a social Europe and not the authoritarian Europe that sometimes rises.” He says all his opinions are on record in Oireachtas files if DRS is interested.

MD gets a quip in with GM – she’s glad he would welcome Protestants into the Áras because her husband is one and she intends to bring him with her.

MD says that while the Presidential role has limitations, it can be a role for motivating and empowering and she has the skills to tackle that.

DN says there may well be an “inevitability” about the centralisation of power in some areas in Europe. He says he supported Nice and Lisbon but has also managed to extract promises from the Government on Ireland not being part of a munitions industry centralised in Europe.

“I always deliver on my promises”.

SG has been pretty quiet this half so MC brings him in. He says he backed Lisbon II based on the changes brought to it. He wonders now though if our own national situation exercises people on the street more now than the wider European situation.

MMcG feels people who changed their vote on Lisbon II might now feel they were “hoodwinked”.

That’s the end of the panel debate – it’s the audience questions after the break.

Handing over to the audience now for questions. They were picked “randomly” apparently but it will be interesting to hear who, if any, is waiting to pounce. And on whom. And over what. You know what I mean.

Gary Martin from the audience asks MDH who he would commemorate 1916.

MDH says it is vital to be sensitive, and notes that four of the signatories were poets and so spoke “the language of the heart”. Lots of other anniversaries coming up including founding of Labour Party, says MDH, so let’s not make them a series of confrontationals but create an “amnesty on memory” so we can place all our versions side by side.

MDH has to leave earlier because he is had made an appointment to attend a film event for RADE, a drugs recovery organisation, before he knew of the Last Word’s arrangements.

DN wants to read the 1916 Proclamation under the portico of GPO and invite all the presidents of the US, France and other nations to vow to cherish all the people of the planet equally.

SG says it is time for a new type of patriotism and we should draw on our strength. He wants to see an expo and invite hundreds of thousands of the diaspora come here to commemorate 1916.

DRS says the only true celebration of 1916 would be to make sure the Constitution that ultimately came out of that is still vital and living.

GM makes a quick clarification about his “some” Olympics remark, saying he has disabilities in his family and they had volunteers at Special Olympics when they were here so he wouldn’t have meant any harm at all by his phrasing.

Not sure what he would do on the event of 1916 exactly but he feels it should be approached sensitively.

MMcG wondering if we are cherishing all the children equally as per the 1916 Proclamation these days. On actual events, he agrees it needs to be sensitive and that he is already talking to Peter Robinson about the way forward.

Ian Paisley told MMcG that “we can rule ourselves”. We can build on that, says MMcG. Peaceful reunification please, he says.

Rob Hanrahan wants to know if the candidates believe in God as they would have to pledge allegiance in their Presidential obligation.

DN says it may surprise some to know he is a Christian. He says he doesn’t agree to go on radio shows on Sundays because of his attendance at St Patrick’s -(didn’t he present a Sunday radio show?)

MD agrees to DN assertion that diversity should be a big part of being in the Aras.

GM, will God sustain you in a Presidency, asks Matt Cooper, smiling slightly,

Yes, I’m a Catholic, says GM but my grandfather was a Methodist and I’m open to everybody.

SG is a Catholic but is open to the oath being changed to being more inclusive. If someone were to be elected who didn’t believe in God, that would undermine the oath.

Then he tells that old anecdotal chestnut about the Catholics all being held in an isolated pen in heaven because they like to think they are the only ones in there.

DRS believes in God. She feels secularism is being “forced” on the Constitution and society and is being pushed by the Labour party. Just as well for her that MDH has left the building, we imagine.

MMcG: Which God are you talking about?

He’s a Catholic and he says he canvasses on a Sunday and canvassed in a Presbyterian church where he had a warm welcome. He thinks we should be respectful of all who believe in different gods or none at all.

DN back in to say he is a Catholic and talks about his Catholic clergy descendancy.

Conor in the audience brings up the Salary Cut Question. GM says the figure being spoken of is still “north of €200,000″.

MD says she is delighted GM has “inside information” on that. She doesn’t mind a reduction but it shouldn’t become a bartering situation because then only the candidate who is rich enough to take the job on with a low salary could win.

DN says he was first to raise this issue. Brings out his oft-aired idea of putting the majority of the salary aside, holding a celebration of every county for each of the first 26y months of his Presidency.

The money shouldn’t go back to the Govt to be squandered, says DN to some applause.

SG reckons he put his business interests aside to run for this presidency. He seems annoyed that Vincent Browne cut him off on his point about cutting back on leaflet circulars – my point, he says, is that the €10m we would have saved would have paid the next 40 years of the Presidential salary.

DRS wants as much as she can spare to go into a Presidential trust to fund desperately-needed services like rehab for injured young people.

The media has gotten the wrong end of the stick when saying MMcG would take only the average industrial wage, he says. He’d only take the average wage which is “considerably less”, he says.

He mentions those six young people he thinks it would pay to get off the dole but says that is just part of a bigger point which is to set an example for those struggling that prominent people in the State will stand beside the ordinary people.

Lots of MMcG support in the club tonight, it seems by the applause that accompanies many of his points.

DN says he created 20 jobs in the James Joyce centre and never took a single penny for chairing the board of it, or of a centre on the southside he also chairs.

So, Matt Cooper concludes, no-one in the race for the Áras has the type of financial problems that would come back to bite if they were President.

I have problems, says DN, but I won’t be going bankrupt.

Cut to ads.

Bit of an exodus for the table as SG, MMcG, GM head.. to the bathroom? For tea? It’s been an hour and a half so far so can’t really blame them.

Again, the candidates listening to playback of their comments on the Today FM news and trying to keep their faces straight. Bit of banter between DN and the audience about his Sunday radio show. Says he was in church and never heard it. So presumably was pre-recorded.

Interesting item on the TodayFM news says that people who meet people online often find they are not as they seem in real life. No.

Helen McHugh from the audience is asking if the Presidency could have one more right or power, what would it be? Good question.

DRS wants to see the President be able to address the nation once a year. To have that connection with the people. And to have a forum of young people who could have direct contact with the President.

MD wants to set up a series of conventions bringing people in to talk about issues that are affecting them and make it “solution-based” and bring that to the Government.

SG would like “the power of bi-location”. To double the amount of work that needs to be done.

Not sure a Constitutional amendment can stretch to that, SG.

GM intends to put the issue of suicide on the agenda and believes the President could have a role in developing world. Coming back to Helen’s question, he talks about the prestige the President carries abroad and wants the President to be given additional powers as an economic ambassador.

MC asks SG if GM is stealing his stance.

SG says he’s stealing his clothes. He thinks the Pres should be an economic ambassador though. It makes it “measureable and real”.

MD says the role already encompasses the role of economic ambassador.

DRS brings up her own dial citizenship herself. MC says he thought we weren’t to talk about that. He says it would not be a bad thing that people would see a little bit of American in their president.

MMcG wants to see a taskforce for job creation headed by the President and the process of national reconciliation also spearheaded by the Pres. DN got in his point about the absolute power of the Presidency right now.

Who would the candidates vote for if they couldn’t be President themselves?

GM says he only entered the race because he couldn’t see a Presidential type among the other candidates. Invokes the Secret Ballot Act for his second preference.

MD respects all the candidates but says she brings her “I am the only independent candidate”. No-one else has that she says with a broad smile. She won’t name anyone.

DN reminded he said he would like MDH to be his vice-pres. He says the listeners can draw their own conclusions. He tells his “good friend” MD that he is also fiercely independent and has never been appointed to a board by a political party. You can’t see this but he nods at MD for this. You might have heard the cheers from the crowd though.

SG says there is “relevance” in each of the candidates and would give them all the number 2. DN says that would spoil your vote.

MMcG doesn’t have a vote. That’s the best get-out-of-jail-free card I’ve ever heard, says DN.

It’s a naive question says MMcG as no-one will answer straight.

DRS would like an independent, an ambassador for the country but she won’t say who. We think she means herself.

Matt Cooper brings up all the controversies attached to each candidate. GM, if it hasn’t happened to you, is it because you were busy making sure all the others’ controversies were brought up.

Huge applause and laughter and everyone’s having the craic.

Not for long though. GM saying he hopes people won’t be put off going into public life because they see the hard time the candidates have been given about some things that should be personal.

By the way, that GM ‘if it hasn’t happened to you…’ line was Matt Cooper’s, not mine.

MC accused by DN of being flippant over the letters by asking why he wouldn’t print “a few letters” along with his financial statements. MC gets serious.

DN wants to get final word – says he printed the significant letter and that people can believe what he wants because his track record speaks for itself.

He says it’s not to him to “rip the wound right open” for the victim.

Beecham solicitors and Michael O’Higgins, SC, and Tel Aviv legal advisors told him not to print them, he says.

DRS says there was no decision made in her family NOT to disclose she had US citizenship. She says she didn’t say she had US citizenship because no-one asked. She says the US immigration official says it didn’t mean she was revoking her Irish citizenship by swearing allegiance to the US.

MMcG asked why he is so “surprised” that people keep asking him about his IRA past. He says he wasn’t surprised. MC refers to the ‘West Brit elements of the media’ MMcG accused of bringing it up.  MMcG believes if people could blame him for 1916, they would.

SG says he has never hidden his involvement with Fianna Fail as a grassroots member but he has never run for office for them and we shouldn’t demonise people who are grassroots members of any party.

End of debate. Headphones off.

Last Orders with John Colleary now. Can it be as much fun as watching the seven squish up cosily on the platform in the Sugar Club though? I doubt it. Matt Cooper surrounded himself with two computers to keep his distance. Objectivity is a geographical issue too you know.

Just outside the door, Martin McGuinness has called Gay Mitchell’s line on getting back into the Commonwealth if it meant all-island unity as “pathetic”.

Only DN and SG left chatting now outside. Everyone else has cleared off.

Right-o. Will we see you all here tomorrow night for our liveblog of the RTE Prime Time Presidential debate? Same bat-time, same bat-time channel.

Or if you’re still in liveblogging mood, the fragrant, the swift-typing Adrian Russell is recounting the Ireland v Armenia game over at TheScore.ie. Click here and say hello to him.

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