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Tony Kinlan

The TG4 Presidential Election debate, as it happened

We went live for minute-by-minute coverage as the seven candidates hit Baile na hAbhann for the Díospóireacht Gaelach.

The seven presidential candidates travelled to Baile na hAbhann in Co Galway earlier to take part in a TG4 Presidential debate.

This was our minute-by-minute account as to how it all went down.

Dia dhaoibh, and welcome along to our live blog of today’s TG4 presidential debate.

Right, so what to expect tonight? Well, there will be opening and closing statements, which each candidate will issue solely in Irish.

When taking part in the dialogue, candidates will be allowed to speak in either English or Irish.

Sean Gallagher (SG) begins with his apologies that he hasn’t used his Irish as much as he would have liked since the Leaving Cert, but pledges to follow the lead of the McAleeses by brushing up on his command of an Gaelach while in office.

Martin McGuinness (MMcG) opts not to begin with a comment on the Irish, instead talking about his experience in politics at local and international levels. “I want to be president because I’m a good leader,” he says, using his experience to attract jobs to Ireland and pledging to reconcile during his time – essentially the same pitch as McGuinness usually offers in English, but with some extra comments about pledging to promote the Irish language.

Michael D Higgins (MDH) – the fundamental founder of TG4 – mentions his work to found Teilifís na Gaeilge while in office. He says he’s devoted his life to promoting the country, and speak of four cornerstones that will mark his term in office: inclusive citizenship, the creative society, a ‘Real Republic’ and Irish and Being Irish Around the World. He will “gladly accept” the responsibility of the oath of office.

Mary Davis (MD) says the seven candidates all come from different backgrounds – but their common theme is their true love for the country. She says she’s worked with people who have faced challenges, and has learned that we can “rise up in spite of the obstacles in front of us”. Ireland needs a President who will work hard from day one to tackle its social problems, she says, and who will place emphasis on equality and respect to help restore Ireland’s reputation. She wants to help Irish people restore their own self-confidence.

Dana Rosemary Scallon (DRS) welcomes the chance to speak to the Irish language community, saying she loves the language and would love to be fluent – trumping Gallagher by saying she’s already taking places. That’s the entirety of her opening.

Gay Mitchell (GM) says he wants Ireland to be a prosperous place and to do for the Republic what Mary McAleese did for the North. He wishes to make life better for the people of Ireland, and strongly believes Ireland is on the cusp of something great. He wants to be the President “guiding us” to that new era.

David ‘Daithí’ Norris (DN) says there are three fundamental planks to his campaign. He will not be putting policies on behalf of a party, and references his work as a Senator to fight injustice. His “solemn promise” is that he will give the office back to the hands of muintir na hÉireann. A vote for him will put the people on the road to recovery.

Now, as we mentioned each person will be able to answer questions in the language of their choice…

What will Ireland be celebrating in 2016? MMcG is first, saying the centenary of 1916 merits someone who is a “32-county nationalist” and who still wants to see the Proclamation put in place.

MDH says the veterans of the Easter Rising made a major sacrifice, but if we want a Real Republic now we must embrace the ideals they wanted. Four of the seven signatories were poets who believed in the country, but their passion hasn’t been realised. The State has failed to protect children and uphold their rights, he says. We should embrace 2016 to return to that idealism.

MD gets the same question – and says she’d like to mark 2016 with an inclusive society. She wants all people treated equally, and believes this would be the “best commemoration”. She also wants a nationwide consultation on how 2016 can mark both the past and the present.

DRS: “2016 means nothing unless the Proclamation itself is a living and a breathing document.” The Proclamation gives Irish people the ownership of the State, but this has not proven to be the case, she says. By 2016 we need a president who ensures the right of people to own their nation is “protected to the upmost”. We have so much suffering, emigration, struggles… this is because the respect due to the people is not being upheld.

GM gets the 2016 question: The President is the only one-person institution, so it needs to be someone who arrives with strong ideas and experience. He points to the words about prosperity and happiness, and point to his crusade against suicide – saying when we had prosperity, we still had major mental health problems. Particularly he wants to end bullying in all forms.

DN opts for an Irish opening before reverting to English. He found 1966 as a ‘narrow, Sectarian’ event and says 2016 cannot be similar. He says he would like to stand on the portico of the GPO, flanked by the presidents of USA and France, to revive the Proclamation and also to focus on our status as “children of the entire planet”.

SG says he wants to acknowledge and recognise the sacrifices of those who laid down their lives in 1916, saying they looked to the future and not the past. He wants to do likewise. Many thousands of young Irish will have emigrated before 2016 and he wants to help them stay at home.

Questioned now about the National Anthem… is it fit for purpose?

MDH says the anthem is a potent symbol and says the best thing may be to consider the matter in the Constitutional Convention.

MD says people have a strong attachment to Amhrán na bhFiann, because of its link to cultural events, and says we shouldn’t consider changing it lightly. She would want another song to be ready if the current anthem was to be replaced.

DRS would hate to see the song changed, because it is a commemoration of the price that was paid by the people who died for the state – just like the anthem of her other country, the USA.

GM says the anthem is held in high regard – ‘Ireland’s Song’ [sic] gives people a lift at rugby, but not in the same way as the national anthem does.

DN says the anthem is the only song as Gaeilge he knows all the words of. It may be “blood-thirsty” but there are others which are more so.

SG has mixed views on it – he sees the attachment that many have, but would be open to explore revising it. (DN interrupts with a reference to ‘Sinne Fianna Fáil’ – cute timing…) SG wants the anthem to celebrate our strengths, and wants it to be sung “north and south”, like at rugby matches.

MMcG would not favour changing it – he says people have an emotional attachment, including the diaspora. “It’s about what we are,” he says.

Q3 – What role would Irish have in each of your presidencies?

MD is totally committed to the government’s 20-year strategy and says she’s learning the language again. She would bring groups like TG4 and Conradh na Gaeilge to the Áras. The language has a “central role” to the Presidency because it has a similar role in the country’s culture. She also wants the language learned in a conversational way.

DRS says fluency in Irish would be “her greatest desire” – over being President? – but is asked how we could embrace the language. First of all, she says, it’s important that a president be able to immerse themselves in the language – not least because the Irish translation of the constitution is superior to the English one.

GM’s thoughts: His children attended gaelscoileanna and he says he has spoken Irish at the European Parliament. The “explosion” of gaelscoileanna shows the appetite for the language, but GM says there is a demand for secondary gaelscoileanna that isn’t being satisfied. He got his papal blessing as Gaeilge when he married, he says. He wants to become fluent and encourage others – including Government – to do the same.

DN says he’s spoken Irish in the Seanad ‘ó am go ham’ – from time to time. When he did so, the main parties were shocked, he jokes. He also goes back to the prominence of the Constitution in Irish over English. He also laments the loss of the older set of Irish language characters, the seanchló.

SG says the reason the language has suffered is because of some of the teaching methods used for many people. He says it needs to be “brought in to everyday life”. It’s “at the core of who we are” – as exemplified by the Queen’s use of it – and he wants to follow the example of how a president can become líofa - fluent – in office.

MMcG isn’t fluent – “yet” – but has signed up to classes being run in the North, alongside many from the Unionist community. He was the Education minister and he knows the criteria to make it easier for gaelscoileanna to start up.

Is there a danger of the language being politicised? Not really – he mentions the Queen’s use, thinking it was “tremendous as she was prepared to do that.” He was merely disappointed that “the establishment has cut Údaras na Gaeltachta”. He may mean Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta.

Irish will play a big role in MDH‘s presidency, saying each citizen has the right to deal with the office in the country’s official language. It’s also important to the Irish abroad that they hear the language from their head of state. It’s not enough just to speak cúpla focail at events, though.

But there have been many failures to promote the language… Yes, there have. But gaelscoileanna are flourishing – not just in Dublin, he says. We must accept and recognise that it’s a language of communication. As a former minister for the Gaeltacht he believed it was the right of people to have facilities delivered in their language.

Does DRS regret standing in this election?

DRS doesn’t regret standing because some things needed to be said – but if you don’t stand up, you lose much more, she says. “I couldn’t let this time pass, whatever the cost, for the people of this country.”

DRS is asked if the events of the last debate – when she made a late statement condemning media coverage of a family dispute – mark a sign of poor judgement. She says not – it was an unusual circumstance – and she wants to thank the people who have encouraged her to continue with her campaign since those events of six days ago.

Does DRS have a problem leading the country with a pro-European government? She will always cooperate with them for the good of the people – to do otherwise would be “anarchy”. She hasn’t always been anti-Europe, she just doesn’t want to see every aspect of our lives being ruled by Europe. She will “never rubberstamp” what is against the rights of the public.

Has the recession affected her personally? Yes, she says – as it has all of us. Continually asked about whether it has damaged her personally, she continually asserts that it has hurt everyone – but she can’t afford to put up posters because of the price and her means.

Is GM worse off than he was in 2008? Yes, he says, through various means. He knows what it is like for some people to struggle – because his daughter has a tight mortgage.

Regarding the office being ‘political’ – he asserts that the President is part of the Oireachtas, and says the President can exert that kind of influence, though remain completely separate from the party he would run from.

Gay has fought 13 elections and won. He beat two high-profile candidates to get the nod… and then he took a week’s holidays? GM: No, I said I’d take a week “at some stage”, which was the end of August. He went on a tour to meet councillors and then he went to festivals, he says. He shared his vision of an inclusive Ireland, which “can be prosperous as well as happy”.

GM: If we have an experienced person in the Áras, we can hit the ground running for a recovery.

He’s again asked about his poll performance – he says 40% of voters decide on their vote in the last week. (The last Red C poll had 28% of people undecided.)

DN is asked about having a partner… he says he doesn’t have one, won’t have one travelling at the taxpayer’s expense… “that’s all I can say”, he bruffly declares.

DN said at the beginning he would put aside “a major income” of his wage – rather than return it to the Exchequer – to “make the President more accessible”. He wants to “champion every single county in rota” and revisits his idea of asserting each month to be the month of a ‘certain county’.

Wait, isn’t that what the last two presidents have done? No, it’s much more systematic, DN says. Things like Robinson’s candle in the window were laughed at but meant much to people.

Has the recession affected you? Not as much as others, but yes. This election is clearing me out of my savings, he says, before going back to his independence (implying that neither Gallagher nor Davis are).

Now, to SG… Are you not the embodiment of the property boom? ”I’ve never been a developer… I was a subcontractor in the same way as plumbers, plasterers…” He’s created jobs and is proud of that.

Didn’t he benefit from the boom? Well, yes, because his business was in houses. But the company had to pay off its debts without developers paying him for his services.

What about national executive level at FF? SG attended all of two meetings, but have raised the issue (of needing legislative reform to protect subcontractors) “everywhere”. He and Feargal Quinn have championed legislation which is now part of the programme for government and it could be enacted before the end of 2011.

Our first intervention… DN pops in. He has no problem with SG‘s work in the executive but “it seems extraordinary to me” that he would only attend two meetings… why not use the platform?

SG says the executive doesn’t deal with policymaking and only does organisation. There are about 100 members and the number of policymakers is quite small in that context, he reckons. He left the executive – “like many thousands” – when he felt the leadership was moving away. That says, he does not want people to feel “demonised”.

Is he worse off? Yes, but survival is the new success. Though I got married last year and that made me more wealthy. (We assume he means spiritually.)

MMcG is asked if it’d be appropriate for him to attend a reconciliation forum in the North, as President of the Republic. He says he’d establish a “forum for national reconciliation” and says he has the backing of both nationalists and unionists. How would that work? “It’s all speculation at the moment. It’s all hypothetical.”

He goes on to say that it appears nobody wants to talk about the future… and doesn’t envisage having anything other than a positive relationship with the government of the day. Nonetheless, his next statement is that the people feel “betrayed by the establishment”, going on to attack Fine Gael and Labour’s stance in government.

Do you believe there is only Óglaigh na hÉireann? Yes, it’s the army of this state. Was it wrong of the IRA to use the name? “The IRA are gone… whether it was wrong or not…” The political circumstances of 1971 when he joined were much more different. “Let’s talk about the future,” he insists. “Many members of Óglaigh na hÉireann are going to vote for me.”

If he was president, is he conceding that a United Ireland isn’t attainable? Not at all, MMcG says. He points to DN’s note about celebrating the “26 counties” and said McAleese visited all 32 – only for DN to jump in and say his first loyalty should be to the 26 counties who vote for him.

Anyone elected has a duty “to my country, Derry, which is as Irish as Wexford”.

Has the recession affected him personally? He points out that he earns the least at the table – though is taken to task that any difference in his wage has been absorbed by Sinn Fein and not by him. He’ll use his surplus wage to employ six young people. This is symbolic, he acknowledges.

Are you worse off? I’m the worst off around this table… we are all worse off.

“Tempus Fugit”, quips Páidí Ó Lionáird. Time flies. Doesn’t it?

MDH is asked about his age and whether he is, essentially, up to the task. He says he tried to run in 2004 to ignite a debate about Ireland’s values. If he was president, he wouldn’t have identified with the “open-ended Celtic Tiger”.

Ireland now needs values of co-operation, ar seisean. “There are people who want to revive the radical individualism which brought us to where we are,” and who want us on a path other than the one we are travelling. He respects the approach of all of the candidates, but there’s a difference between the economy SG wants and the one he want. You don’t just get growth and distribute the benefits.

If we’re to accept the possibilities within Ireland, we need to accept that Irish people will be working together to achieve those wider goals. Ireland’s reputation has been destroyed… we were once seen as rich, but that was damaging. We need to restore that reputation.

SG is asked to respond. He’s reluctant to be seen only as an entrepreneur – he’s done that for a decade (he’s 49 now) but did professional social youth work before that.

GM tries to leap in – we’ve had FF and Labour in government more than anyone else in the last 20 years, and they’ve promised stuff for the future. What about today? We’ve had “failed politics”.

MDH gets another go – he’s created jobs in the Gaeltacht in many industries. (Thanks for that.) Is he less off? Yes, but he’s happy with his current income. He took cuts but they affected others more than him. He won’t be on the Oireachtas pension.

MD is asked about her spot on the State boards. Many of her boards are not state boards – “or boards, as such” – but she agrees she was attracted to many of them because of her Special Olympics experiences, which brought “the biggest” sporting event ever to Ireland. That attracted a lot of eyes, she reckons, and turned down as many as she accepted. People were generous to her in helping with the Special Olympics, and she wanted to give back. “And I did.”

MD has always acted with integrity and as a responsible person… “for the 24 organisations, 17 or 18 of those were done totally on a voluntary basis.” (Has she lost count? She disclosed earnings from six of the 24, so it would be 18.)

“Those areas of my life haven’t been concentrated on, and that’s the frustrating part,” she says.

Is there a deficit of ‘pride at home and respect abroad’? Working internationally, she has seen that Ireland’s reputation has been tarnished. That effects the economy and she’d like to meet the government to see how she could be deployed to help that.

Has it affected MD personally? It’s effected “every single person”. Yes, because it’s not just how much you earn, but it’s how you spend it.

Around the table… two presidents have resigned. Was Cearbhall O Dalaigh justified in doing so in 1976?

GM regrets that it happened but he had to do to keep integrity to the office. He would see out his entire term.

DN says he’ll see out the whole thing – coining the 24-carat independent line for the second time tonight. Was Ó Dalaigh correct? “Yes, he behaved greatly.”

SG says he wouldn’t have resigned in the same circumstances as Ó Dalaigh. He admires his actions, but would have followed another line.

MMcG says Ó Dalaigh was of “impeccable character” and the FG government treated him disgracefully. He would also complete his term.

MDH says O Dalaigh did the right thing. He would complete one term. “One term?” “One term.” So no campaign in 2018 then.

MD takes offence at the “24 carat” remark and says she wouldn’t be tempted away like Robinson was.

DRS says Ó Dálaigh was absolutely right. “I absolutely would” serve his full term, she says, and was disappointed that Mary Robinson stepped down to take another gig.

Lightening the tone… at a social gathering, what’s your party piece?

SG: My character and interaction, and connecting with people. (That sound you hear is a nation crying “cop out!”) He laments not being able to sing or play an instrument.

MMcG says he’s recited poems to entertain before – his own poetry (take that, Michael D).

MDH says it’s not his practice to read his own poems late at night, but he’s collected many stories over his life, and he hopes in years to come to release them to the public after he’s finished his term.

MD says she loves the Karaoke machine. “We are all believers” – either a religious reference or a Monkees one. She also juggles.

GM says he usually sings a verse of a song whose name I didn’t catch.

And as for DRS? Well, obvious question. She was honoured to win for Europe, she says, and she says it’s been great to hear other people’s memories of that night. It’s a party piece but everyone sings it together, she says.

DN won’t inflict poetry or Joyce on people, but says he’ll play piano. Chopin or ragtime, he jokes.

And with that, the whole thing wraps up – there doesn’t seem to be time for the closing statements that had originally been promised, so with that it appears the debate has now officially wrapped up.

And as Eimear Ní Chonaola – the undoubted star of the General Election debates – gets ready to kick off the analysis, that’s where we draw a close to proceedings. But, of course, there’s one thing we need to ask you first… who won?

Right, and with that, that’s our liveblog taken care of. Thanks to all of you for your company and comments – see you at next week’s Frontline debate.

If you’re still stuck for a liveblog, however, the lads at The Score are taking care of the Champions League for you.

One final note – we tried to plonk a poll in here, asking you who you think was tonight’s winner, but it turns out the liveblogging software can’t handle it very well. We’ll run a formal poll in the morning, to save confusion.

Good night and beir bua!

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