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Liveblog: The Prime Time presidential debate, as it happened

Relive the Prime Time debate, as Miriam O’Callaghan put the candidates under the microscope.

THE SEVEN PRESIDENTIAL hopefuls went to Montrose for their second live television debate of the election campaign – and their third debate of the day.

Here’s how the whole thing went down.

Good evening and welcome to our live coverage of the RTÉ Prime Time presidential debate. Are we all set?

The whole point of this debate is that we want it to be as interactive as possible – so please do feel free to get in touch via either the comments field below, or by the other means listed above.

Six of the seven candidates have arrived at RTÉ so far – the political tweeters on the scene inform us that Martin McGuinness is a latecomer, and won’t have the time to chat to reporters before the broadcast begins at 9:35pm.

McGuinness’s temporary absence means only six of the candidates are on site so far – Dana Rosemary Scallon (DNS) was the first to show, wearing fuschia, followed by Michael D Higgins (MDH) in a matching blue blazer and tie.

Gay Mitchell (GM) appears to be wearing a black suit with a crimson tie, not dissimilar to Sean Gallagher (SG) who was the fourth to arrive for tonight’s tête-à-tête-à-tête-à-tête-à… well, you get the idea.

David Norris (DN) was the fifth to show, in a crisp royal blue suit with matching tie, while Mary Davis (MD) is in attendance wearing lilac.

As you may have noticed, and in keeping with our previous liveblogs, we’ll be referring to each candidate by their initials for the duration of tonight’s proceedings – meaning that Martin McGuinness, who still hasn’t arrived in Montrose, will be denoted by an MMcG.

While we wait for things to kick off, we thought we might share an observation with you – you might just have seen an ad on RTE One plugging tonight’s debate. The music they’re using is the intro to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance – better known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, the song you might know from some other scenes…

All of that, of course, is against the backdrop of the ongoing furore about the prospect of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth – as proposed by Gay Mitchell, and vehemently opposed by Martin McGuinness, yesterday.

And on that note, the aforementioned MMcG has arrived in Montrose with some 20 minutes to spare.

Lest we be accused of letting down our sartorially interested readers, MMcG is in a dark suit with a fast-becoming-his-trademark bright green tie.

So – what do we know about tonight’s debate? Well, the show will be broadcast for seventy minutes. Miriam O’Callaghan will be the moderator for the debate, which will be broken into four parts.

It won’t be too surprising if some of the candidates perhaps look a bit jaded this evening – aside from being their third televised debate of the campaign, six of the seven candidates are participating in their third debate of the day.

All seven attended a breakfast debate at the Royal College of Physicians this morning, before six of the seven (DRS did not attend) went to a Barnardos forum at Dublin Castle.

Speaking of the Commonwealth, have you voted in our daily poll yet? Today’s question, following GM‘s suggestion, was: Should the Republic join the Commonwealth in exchange for a united Ireland?

Via the comments field, Tony Stamper quips: “If I was being naughty I could ask if the above video is from Gay Mitchell’s campaign launch, but I won’t.”

I think it’s probably safe to say that it was unlikely.

Ooh! Before we forget – have you printed our your Presidential Bingo Card? It’s family-friendly fun for all the… eh… family. And with seven candidates all hoping to make an impact, you can bet there’ll probably be quite a few clichés dropped this evening.

Oh, and for those of you who might be wondering – we have no idea what Miriam O’Callaghan is wearing. We can probably guess it won’t be the Downton Abbey couture she was admiring the other night, however.

Right, and here we go, live from Montrose…

Any last minute predictions? Leave your comments below.

Miriam – the lady in red – welcomes you all to the debate, and reminds us that it’s only 15 days to polling day. (Time flies, huh?) She says there are many questions to be answered – but the debate will try and identify who has the “experience and character” to become the next head of state.

Here’s our Sky Sports-style montage reviewing the campaign so far… Higgins’ age, Davis’ quango history, McGuinness’s IRA past, Mitchell’s FG support, Norris’s clemency letters, Dana’s family disputes and Gallagher’s Fianna Fáil past all get a mention.

Miriam welcomes all seven and outlines the format – tonight is an interactive debate, rather than a format of simultaneous interview. She will start by asking about the powers of the office.

What are the most important powers of the president?

SG begins with the ‘hard powers’ like Article 26, referring bills to the Supreme Court, but says those powers take up relatively little time. The ‘softer power’ of Article 13.9, he says, allows presidents to set themes – and he wants to set the themes of enterprise, education and disability.

SG is asked about Article 13.2 – in which the President can dissolve, or refuse to dissolve, the Dáil. He says he would only be asked to invoke that in a time of crisis, so it’s “unlikely and very rare” that he would have to use it.

MD, asked about the same Article 13.2, agrees that it’s similarly hypothetical but that she would use it “in crisis” and can’t imagine trying to hypothesise such a situation.

She says the most important power the President has (mentioning her Council of State slot) is Article 26, and the ability to refer bills to the Supreme Court.

Are there dangers to that? “Yes, there can be.” What are they? “If you do refer the bill, and it is signed in, it can never be challenged again.” That’s why presidents have to be careful about using Article 26, she says.

MMcG says the chief responsibility of the Presidency is to defend the constitution, and Article 26 is the most important one. He says the Supreme Court are the ones who will make the final decision in any such role though, where they may be a dispute between President and Government.

Can he hypothesise an example? The resignation of the Taoiseach – the President could decide to refuse to dissolve the Dáil, he says.

MDH says the “discretionary powers” of Article 13.9 are where a president can make their mark, but says the Constitutional Convention next year may iron out any problems in Article 26. He says there is nothing to stop the government from proposing new legislation even if the Supreme Court has already struck down some of its provisions. “That’s terribly important,” he says, “because you’re keeping the balance.”

DNS says the most important power is singularly ensuring that the Constitution is maintained by any prospective laws. She is asked how she’d react if a Budget came to her with welfare cutbacks. The President wouldn’t have any right to refer that, she says. That’d be down to the government.

DN says the most important power is “something quite subtle” and talks about the unenumerated rights, discussed by Mary Robison, enshrined within it. “Being the voice of the people” is the greatest power, he says. “If you refuse to dissolve the government, that’s a very important power, because you’re banging their heads together…”

GM says the single most important power is the direct mandate from the people – giving them “huge moral authority and influence”. He says Ireland is on the cusp of massive recovery, and the President can use their moral authority in ways nobody else can.

Miriam says nobody has mentioned the power to address the nation – GM points out that the message has to be approved by government, and refers to his theme of suicide awareness.

SG says that’s a good idea, and the power to address the Oireachtas and nation – in Articles 13.7.1 and 13.7.2 – could be used to mark the centenary of 1916. He goes back to the Dáil dissolution question, and says if a Taoiseach has lost the confidence of his party and wants to dissolve before he is removed by his party, it would be acceptable to consider refusing.

Back to GM who points out the differences between our model and the Westminster model, pointing out that the Taoiseach is elected by the Dáil and not ‘chosen’ by the head of state. It’s up to the Taoiseach to decide whether he retains the support of the house, he says.

MDH says the President can’t assume the will of the parliament, and paints the same scenario as GM saying it’s up to the Dáil to choose taoisigh.

Is it right to swear to Almighty God? MDH says the oath is laid by the constitution and if you enter the election, you inherently agree to be bound by it, but that the religious aspect is not the main aspect of the oath.

Does he believe in God? “I am a spiritual person… I am a believer, but I don’t impose my personal interpretations.”

All the candidates appear to nod to say they believe in God and have no problem taking the oath, but GM leaps in again to say nobody would object to someone who “isn’t a believer” taking the oath.

MDH wants the oath to be reconsidered in the convention. Why? “So that the wording might be more inclusive.”

DNS accuses Labour of wanting to “secularise the constitution” – a claim MDH rejects, with the night’s first attack, challenging her to name her source.

DN says he’s a believing Christian, but he doesn’t wear his faith “on his armband”. People who don’t have a belief shouldn’t be excluded, he says.

We should recognise the fact that expressions of religious belief have legal effect – citing his own High Court experiences where his evidence and testimony had to be overlooked because of his beliefs.

MMcG says it’s “always sensible” to review these things. Miriam accuses him of a “wishy-washy” response – so Martin says he’s a Catholic, but went to a Presbyterian church last Sunday, and knows he’d likely be a Protestant if he were born elsewhere.

The IRA question: How does MMcG reconcile his religion with the involvement in so many murders? ”That’s a disgraceful comment.” He joined for political motive, he says.

We’ve seen plenty of religious people committing to war, where people die, MMcG says. “When people are being treated as second and third class citizens… I believe people do have a right to resist.”

MMcG is now being given the question on the IRA oath – which rejects the authority of the government of the Republic of Ireland. He says he took an oath of allegiance to the Official IRA, left after three months, but when he left for the Provisional IRA he didn’t take an oath. (Didn’t he previously say he ‘didn’t remember’ if this was the case?)

How does one leave the IRA? MMcG points out his two imprisonments for IRA membership, in 1973 and 1974. He left prison on 11/11/1974 – and got married days later – and manages not to answer the question. “My first election will be thirty years ago next year,” he says, and points out that he has been “at the heart of trying to break a vicious cycle”.

Staying with MMcG, onto the David Kelly question… isn’t it humiliating for a president to go anywhere and potentially be confronted by the relatives of IRA victims?

“I have unreservedly condemend the killing of Gardaí and Defence Forces,” says MMcG. “I would never ever stand over any attacks on the Gardaí and Defence Forces.” He says he can count on many IDF/Army voters. “The skills I have can be easily transferred…”

He insists he doesn’t know who killed David Kelly’s father, and says Miriam’s assertions otherwise make for “a stupid statement”.

DN gets in to say anyone who has been nominated has the right to stand in the election, and mentions his role in the “peace train”. He picketed Sinn Féin, but also the UVF – and he’s “extremely glad” that MMcG has “abandoned violence”. A pitch for McGuinness’s second preferences?

MMcG has a problem with this. “There were many people and many armies involved in violence,” he says, inferring it wasn’t just the republican community who were involved in armed conflict.

GM refers to the murders of Garda Gerry McCabe and Private Paddy Kelly, who never shot anyone, he says – likewise, Dana grew up in Derry but managed not to join the IRA. People spent decades trying to dissuade “people like Martin” from violence, he says.

The only equality in NI was when he [MMcG] and the DUP got power, and “got their chauffeur-driven Mercedes”, says GM.

MD is asked for her thoughts on MMcG’s potential victory, and says he has a democratic right, and that it’s up to the people.

DN says he’s not really bothered, but that he’d like to be President himself. (Cheeky.) MDH says likewise, and that MMcG is entitled to run, but it’s the Irish voters who will decide, and whether they should vote based on current manifesto or their prior standings.

Many of you in the comments field aren’t happy about Miriam’s line of questioning…

But onto SG, and his recent controversy over ‘sidestepping’ a debt to a county council. He says he was lent €20,000 to set up a company in 2001; that money was to be repaid over 7 years, but “a settlement was reached” and “almost all” of the loan was repaid in February 2009.

When this issue arose, SG says he asked his people to arrange a settlement and it was settled to the satisfaction of both parties.

Miriam: Doesn’t this raise questions of honesty? SG says it was early in his business career, but he went on to create a hundred jobs and support others. But then shouldn’t he repay loans? SG says he got €20,000 – in a loan from a council – but repaid €19,000 before it needed to go to court.

It’s been pointed out that I’ve been accidentally varying between ‘DNS’ and ‘DRS’ for Dana Rosemary Scallon, so my apologies for that…

Miriam turns to SG’s relative anonymity and his FF history. He says he joined Ógra Fianna Fáil when he was a teen, and ultimately became a professional youth worker as a result of his youth activism, when he left the party. He insists he only rejoined the party in 2007.

Didn’t he consider running in Louth in the general election this year? A number of local members asked me to consider it, as did others from a new party, SG says. He turned down the change to run because of the ‘George Lee’ experience.

Does anyone regard SG as a “Fianna Fail candidate”? Cue awkward silence…

MDH: It’s important to be “very clear” – there are people within political parties who have worked to change things. That’s what he’s done within Labour himself… an attack! He thinks SG is from the “ethos of Fianna Fail”, and if he was in that economics, then he either distances himself, or tries to turn his party around.

MDH believes there are many in FF who are “very disappointed” at what’s happened to FF… he has great sympathy for those. But he doesn’t accept the notion that the George Lee factor means the Dáil was ineffective. “Some of us went in to change the law and we did it.”

SG turns the tables – or tries to! – by pointing out MDH‘s former flirtation with FF. It lasted for six months, Higgins says. Gallagher “wasn’t in cabinet”, he says.

Didn’t FF let Ireland down? “I can’t answer for Fianna Fail…” He’s sure there were decisions which, in hindsight, were wrong. There were other parliamentarians – including MDH and DN – who didn’t manage to stop it. DN then goes on the offensive and says it’s not right to attack a single group of people.

GM says Sean wasn’t a member of “any subversive organisation” – and appeals to FF supporters to side with him if they feel disowned by anyone else on the stage. SG has nothing to be sorry for for giving his time to the party, he says.

MD admires anyone who stands for public office, she says… “There’s more that I can achieve outside the system,” she says.

“How can you be on so many boards and not be an insider?” MD says she was only on three state boards. How many were political appointments? “Three. Three state boards.”

MD was appointed “in the aftermath of 2003 and the success of those games” because she had “ability… skill… leadership qualities.” (Your Bingo card is glowing, by the way.)

What qualified her to sit on the board of ICS Building Society, a mortgage lender? “If we knew then what we know now, things of course would be different… ICS was not a leader” in the 100 per cent mortgage habit, she says.

…and BREAK! Phew! Your correspondent’s fingers are as heated as your bingo card.

So – so far we’ve had a major MMcG grilling, and some heavy questioning for both SG and MD. DN, MDH, DRS and GM have all escaped Miriam’s microscope for now, but there’s still 25 minutes of TV time left…

Meanwhile – on a personal note, thank you for your 65 comments (and counting) – it certainly makes for a more interesting experience, so do keep your feedback coming.

For those of you who were lost during the SG questioning there – RTE’s Philip Boucher-Hayes earlier did a radio piece about how one of Gallagher’s companies was given a €20,000 loan earlier. It was suggested that the company had folded, with Gallagher setting up another one to take over the first one’s assets – but that, in doing so, the council loan wasn’t ever repaid. Gallagher has tonight affirmed that this wasn’t the case, and that some €19k of the €20k was repaid.

We’re back, with questions about DRS‘s dual citizenship. She says she “didn’t want to be an American” and refused to sign the forms if she lost her Irish citizenship, but was assured that she could keep her Irish status. If you want to give up your Irish citizenship you have to write to the Minister for Justice to let them know, she says.

Miriam puts the question of the oath… DRS says she simply wouldn’t have said the oath, without the assurance about her Irish citizenship. The oath also refers to a different era in history, she says.

Why did DRS want to be a US citizen? It was to ensure that she and her family would be able to continue to live and work in the US, she says, moving onto the undocumented Irish who “cannot come home”.

So onto DRS‘s viewpoint… “I don’t call myself right-wing fundamentalist… otherwise you’d have to call the constitution right-wing fundamentalist”. It should be the people who decide on that moniker.

DN leaps in to say he doesn’t think it’s fair that candidates be pigeon-holed. DRS refers to her autobiography launch, at which MMcG and Paisley were there – DN “feels very snubbed” for not being invited – and “they can find so much that unites us”.

Why is DRS qualified? In 1997 she went forward because she wanted to open it up so that not only political parties could run… Miriam repeats the question. DRS is “an ambassador for my country” and has been since 1970.

DN is asked about his judgement, and whether the clemency furore is a sign of poor judgement on his part. He says the readers of the Metro Herald don’t seem to think it’s an issue.

Didn’t the letters, and his benefit, knock his credibility? On his judgement: “We met a firestorm, the like of which has never been seen, from the media.” Most of the stories about him were “quite untrue”. Some of his signatories withdrew, as did a “tiny number” of his team. Every newspaper, editorial, political journalist… said he should withdraw. “If I was wrong, so were they.”

Judgement applies “in the right context”. He says his performance since his return shows his judgement in returning was sound.

Now we get another clarification on DN‘s disability pension – he says he paid into an income guarantee fund at TCD where he worked, and was advised to activate the fund he had paid into.

Miriam wants to cut him off but DN says he wants more time – “take that one instance of my pension… everything I did was perfectly legal”, and yet newspapers suggested welfare fraud. He wants to “nail that lie”.

On the letters? “I answered that comprehensively.” It’s on his website.

GM now, asked whether he has the support of all of Fine Gael. He says it’s a “throwaway comment” and won the FG primary. Almost all of the FG parliamentary party came to his launch on a Monday, when the Oireachtas isn’t in session, he says.

The Taoiseach is running the country and can’t be “at every crossroads”, GM says.

Now the question on his support for human rights and pro-life activists… Martin Luther King’s niece was invited to speak because she had had two abortions, not because she was opposed to gay marriage – GM didn’t know about this opinion, he says.

Could GM be a divisive question? Let’s take abortion, he says. He voted against the first pro-life amendment as a young TD, against pressure, he says. On the second referendum, he opposed one. In 2002 he introduced another bill to assist crisis pregnancies. Look at the other issues he’s focussed on, like housing, he says.

MDH now – As our head of state, can he go to Israel given his past support for Palestine, etc? “Of course I can go,” he says. Any ambassador – including the Israeli one – is treated with the respect their office deserves.

“I have several times said… you must rememeber, I’m not representing myself, I’m representing Ireland.” There are times he’s opposed wars and people have respected this. He’s spent his political life developing the case for rights.

On the international front? He was the head of EU councils in 1996, he says, and has spent time on human rights work overseas.

MDH has been to both China and Tibet, and met the Chinese politburo, trying to portray himself as someone who can speak to both sides. He’s no problem meeting any ambassador.

Miriam now tries to ask what each person would do with their presidency… MDH tries to jump in. We need to talk about the transformation in this country.

MD is asked what Mary McAleese’s biggest achievement was. She cites the peace process. “It’s defined by the times we live in.”

Practical examples… the first thing she would do is appointed the Council of State, and put a young person on it. She also wants someone from the Global Irish community.

She’d also sit down for a very frank discussion to see how they wished to utilise her as a President.

Who thinks the job is political? Yes: GM, MMcG, MDH. None of the others.

MD has been working to remove stigmas and can use those experiences “and her leadership qualities” to bear.

GM pops in to question the assertion that the presidency is not a political job. He says that’s not true – it’s just not party political. He says he formed the IMPAC Literary Award when he was Lord Mayor, and did other work in other offices. The Presidency is confined, but its prestige can be used to do other things, he says.

GM: “We have got to get away from this idea that Ireland is not a place that is open for business.” We’re on the cusp of massive experience and he wants to share that message.

DN is “twisting GM’s words” by citing a previous GM remark about Fine Gael never having held the Presidency.

MMcG – “the peacemaker” – jumps in to say he wants to be “the jobs president” and says he’s delivered jobs to Northern Ireland, with Peter Robinson, when people said it couldn’t be done.

MMcG: If I were elected president, I’d meet the Taoiseach, organise a taskforce, and go out into the word to seek jobs for Ireland’s youth.

Miriam points out that there are 450,000 unemployed Irish people – isn’t it unfair to keep talking about jobs when there are so many people without them, and presidents can do so little?

MMcG says he’s being interrupted more than anyone else.

People want someone who’s prepared to give up their salary and give it to people who are suffering on this island. Miriam moves onward, and MMcG says she’s being unfair.

Nonetheless, she asks the same question to SG; MMcG jumps in, as does DN, and eventually SG gets his moment. ”This time around, the greatest challenges are unemployment and emigration”. Points to Mary Robinson’s background of social inclusion.

Neither Robinson nor McGuinness were ministers but each did their work to build bridges and integrate, SG says.

SG: Leading a trade mission to bring more tourists, creates more jobs and sustains them here. Opening trade missions creates jobs.

DRS is asked of practical things she can do. “Maintain the constitution” (Bingo ding!)

DRS has a statement:

Lawyers have been instructed to “forensically investigate” a communication which attempts to implicate her and her family. “I assure the Irish people I will leave no stone unturned” to expose the motives of this claim, she says.

DRS says the people will “very soon know” what the allegation is, because it’s breaking in a newspaper tomorrow.

DRS: To feel that there is a deliberate attempt to destroy your character is a horrible feeling. She would rather not discuss the matter, but will consider withdrawal.

One should never give into malicious intent, and I did say I would withdraw if people kept trying to expose my family, she says – once again refusing to go into detail.

DN says he sympathises with DRS, as the victim of “unparalleled onslaught”. He’s begun to know each candidate and their traits, he says… I have done every single one of the things that others have done: used the constitution, written poetry, created jobs, performed in theatres…

DN is asked to tell the Irish people what his presidency is going to do. “During the first 26 months of my presidency, I will select one county in rotation…” Celebrate each county and its achievements, and bring its leaders to the Áras.

Why should GM be president? He doesn’t have to imagine the lifestyles of people who are struggling, with his own background. He’s held many offices… carried out an international review of the IFSC… “I can help this country to network back to success.”

SG: Wants to increase access to education and unemployment… he’ll visit every single secondary school to instil confidence; he’d like an Expo of everything that is good about Ireland… reinstil confidence and belief in our communities.

MMcG wants to be a voice for those who feel betrayed by speculators, bankers and politicians, who presided over mass unemployment and emigration. Wants to be a president who can deliver. Others make promises about what they will do – he already has, he says.

DRS: Because I love this country, believe in its constitution… I want them to have their say. She’s tried to represent the country well, and do that with a great sense of pride. We have so much to give… if we just put Ireland first.

DN: Marys Robinson and McAleese have been described as standing for a “liberal agenda”. Lies were told about him on the age of consent, he says… He would say to any parent, looking in: two people under the age of 16, being physical: the young man is a statutory rapist; the girl is not. I stand for the liberal agenda.

MDH has life experiences and a long experience in every elected office: he’s been identifying and supporting the basis of an inclusive society. He has a major circle of contacts and networks to restore and repair our reputation. I love Ireland and it’s people (DN: “Hear hear”).

MD doesn’t want to talk about herself; FDI and the rest “is a given”. What she really wants to talk about are “the real issues” people have in their lives – unemployment, not having jobs, mental health, trafficking and exploitation… literacy… people leaving school without being able to read or write. Young people feeling disenfranchised. Elderly people feeling isolated. Rural transport. “I want to embrace those issues”. She’s give people some hope and confidence, and inspiration. She’d place emphasis on people.

Miriam draws it to a close, and wishes everyone the best of luck – and with that, the debate was no more.

Now – apologies for our outage; just as things got busy in Montrose with Dana Rosemary Scallon’s statement, our servers decided to seize up on us.

We’ve managed to grab the audio of Dana’s statement earlier; you can listen back to it here.

Well, that was quite the ending, wasn’t it? Apologies again for the downtime – just as Dana was giving her statement, the site keeled over a little bit. With Dana’s dustcloud, the morning’s news is certainly going to be amusing – but at this time of the night we’re going to have to shut the doors and kick you all out.

Thanks for joining us over the night, and for your mountains and mountains of comments and tweets – we’ll see you again in the morning, when no doubt this debate will still be on everyone’s lips…

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