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The Gloves Are Off

Casey attacks Higgins on dog grooming (and other standout moments from a feisty debate)

All six presidential candidates faced off for the first time.

presidential debate 149_90556272 All six candidates in the one room for the first time. Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

THE SIX PRESIDENTIAL candidates faced off in a debate for the first time in the campaign this afternoon.

The debate on RTÉ radio’s Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra was a feisty affair in which the incumbent Michael D Higgins faced numerous questions about the costs associated with his presidency.

The debate saw numerous other topics discussed including business interests, the constitutionality of signing bills and the energy levels required for the role.

The full show can be listened to here, but we’ve picked out a number of the standout moments.

Casey attacks Higgins (and his dogs)

One of the most striking things about the debate was how Peter Casey directly challenged Higgins about the costs of his presidency.

Casey said that the cost of Higgins’ presidency was “absolute nonsense”.

“I think Michael is being very disingenuous here,” Casey said, addressing Higgins.

You take a Learjet to go up to Belfast for goodness sakes, that’s the kind of nonsense that shouldn’t be allowed…. It’s absolute nonsense the expenses that you’re putting through.

“You said if you’re re-elected we could do it better, you could actually do it better today. You could actually turn around tomorrow and publish the expenses that are going on.”

rowing 863_90528494 President Higgins with the O'Donovan brothers and his two dogs, Síoda and Brod Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

Higgins said that he has only requested the use of a helicopter 14 times in the past seven years and that his travel arrangements are not decided by him.

Casey continued his attack on costs, asking President Higgins how he spent the €249,000-a-year presidential salary.

What have you spent the €250,000 on? Your rent is paid, your driver’s paid, everything is paid for, your food’s paid for, your nice suits are paid for. What do you spend your money on? Why do you need €250,000, even your dog grooming bills are paid for.

After the debate, a spokesperson for the Michael D Higgins campaign said that Casey’s claim about dog grooming bills was “false and ludicrous”.

“All the costs of the dogs’ upkeep are met from the President’s own funds,” the spokesperson said.

It’s only businesses

The early stages of the debate were focussed on both the costs of the presidency and the business interests of the candidates.

Joan Freeman said at one point that the debate was “getting bogged down with three Dragons”.

Peter Casey said that he would release financial details about his companies, but only if all the other candidates also promised to do so.

During this section, Ní Riada says that Gallagher has “27 businesses” and asked him about what he’s done in them.

In response, Gallagher committed to publishing his tax clearance certs.

presidential debate 149_90556272 All six candidates in the one room for the first time. Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

Getting constitutional

The candidates were given a number of hypothetical situations by Ó hEadhra that they had to give responses to.

In one such incidence, they were asked: “If the Oireachtas passed a bill to outlaw evictions for a period of three years, would you make an Article 26 reference?”

Article 26 allows the president to refer a bill to Supreme Court after consultation with the Council of State.

It was a tricky question and Freeman had the misfortune of being asked it first.

Slightly misunderstanding the question, she said that she “wouldn’t be qualified to answer it now”, before then saying that she would refer it to the Supreme Court.

The other candidates were reluctant to answer the question directly, only saying it would be a legal judgement.

Gallagher said that he would “most likely put the bill into law” but that it would depend on the advice he received from the Council of State.

Higgins sought to use his experiential advantage by explaining the process of how bills are passed, before saying he would sign it “if it was Constitutional”.

Ní Riada promises to visit Palestine

Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada was critical of Higgins for what she said was his reluctance to addresses the Dáil.

As is prescribed under Article 13.7 of the Constitution, the president is permitted to address the Oireachtas “on any matter of national or public importance”.

Ní Riada said it was a power that she would use more than the incumbent, saying that she would address the Oireachtas “on the awful issue of homelessness”.

Higgins noted that any speech delivered would have to be approved by the government and that he prefers to have the control of his speeches.

Ní Riada added that she would also address the Oireachtas “on Palestine” and pledged that “Palestine would be one of the first countries I would visit as an úachtaráin.”

“Something that I believe you haven’t,” she told Higgins.

Is age just a number?

presidential 173_90556303 Peter Casey ahead of today's debate. Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

Ó hEadhra put it to Casey that he had noted previously that “Higgins’ public appearances have dwindled” in the latter years of his presidency.

Casey said this is something “that people need to be aware of”, adding:

If it keeps going the same trajectory, we’ll be getting a walk around the park in about seven years time.

Casey was then asked about whether he doubted Higgins’ energy levels.

“Look, it’s not his fault that he’s 77, that’s not a problem. I get up every morning and work out at 5.30,” Casey said.

Gallagher described Casey’s comment as “disrespectful” before Ní Riada criticised “the cosy consensus” of a president “backed by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour”.

On his own energy levels, Higgins was asked by Ó hEadhra whether Ireland needed “a young, vigorous president”.

“It depends how you define youth, there are some people who are in fact young at great ages and there are people who are young and are very conservative,” Higgins said.

We go again?

president079_90556295 Gavin Duffy at RTÉ Radio Centre. Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

At the end of the debate, Duffy took a swipe and Higgins and Gallagher for their decision not to take part in the first TV debate on Monday.

RTÉ Claire Byrne Live is hosting the debate but only four are participating.

Higgins has taken his decision to limit his debate appearances and will participate in just the RTÉ Prime Time today and the Virgin Media debate hosted by Pat Kenny.

Gallagher has said that he will not be participating in the debate because Higgins will not feature, something Duffy seized on.

‘What pressing engagements do the President and Seán have on Monday? Because this debate could continue,” Duffy said before being cut off.

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