Presidential candidates clash during televised debate over use of Government jet

Irish presidential candidate Peter Casey has accused incumbent President Michael D Higgins of lying about his use of the Government’s private jet.

Mr Casey claimed Mr Higgins was not telling the truth and that he had used the Government jet four times this year.

President Higgins denied the claim, stating he had used the jet twice in the past 12 months for logistical and security issues.

Mr Casey said: “That’s a lie. He used it four times. It’s documented, he used it four times.

“It’s in the newspaper so it must be true.”

President Higgins has come under increasing pressure over his use of the Government’s private jet to fly to Belfast in May.

Mr Casey made the accusation during a live TV presidential debate on Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE on Tuesday night.

It was the final televised debate involving all six candidates vying for the highest office in the State ahead of the electorate going to the polls.

Incumbent President Michael D Higgins, Senator Joan Freeman, Sinn Fein MEP Liadh Ni Riada and three businessmen – Sean Gallagher, Peter Casey and Gavin Duffy – took part in the RTE One’s Prime Time programme.

Mr Casey attacked Mr Higgins directly: “Michael you have to start telling the truth. You didn’t tell the truth when you said you were going to stand for one election, that was a lie.”

The president said he was not going to comment on people who are “suggesting that I am incapable of telling the truth”.

The 77-year old, who is running for a second term in office, said his life had been about “authenticity” and he had been a campaigner and stood for values when they were unpopular.

Mr Gallagher said Mr Higgins’ “changing story” about the matter was “wholly unacceptable”, and he accused him of “hiding behind security reasons”.

He said the president should appreciate that at a time when so many people in Ireland were struggling with housing and homelessness, that taking a jet 100 miles sent the “wrong message” to the people.

Ms Ni Riada said it was “disappointing” that the president did not have “more foresight” to be more accountable.

Incumbent Mr Higgins is the favourite to win the race for the presidency.

The key issues raised on the campaign trail, including presidential expenses and the candidates’ knowledge of the Constitution, were covered on the programme presented by David McCullagh.

Mr Casey’s controversial comments on the Travelling community were also raised.

Last week he said Travellers were simply people camping on someone else’s land and he claimed Ireland’s recognition of them as members of an ethnic minority was “a load of nonsense”.

In the debate he said he did not regard Travellers as a different race to him and so therefore he could not be a racist.

He added: “It wasn’t an attack, it was an observation that was accurate.”

Senator Freeman called on Mr Casey to apologise for his comments, but the businessman insisted he had nothing to apologise for.

Ms Ni Riada said the politics Mr Casey was pedalling was of “far-right” extremism and it reminded her of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

Another TV debate is scheduled for Wednesday night on broadcaster Virgin Media One, but Mr Higgins will not be attending.

Mr Gallagher had previously ruled out taking part in any debate if all candidates were not present.

But in a significant U-turn in the final days of the campaign, Mr Gallagher announced on Tuesday that he would participate in all the remaining debates regardless of whether Mr Higgins attended.

This leaves incumbent Mr Higgins as the only candidate who will not be participating.

Mr Gallagher was asked by fellow former Dragons’ Den investor Gavin Duffy whether he accepted it was a mistake not to have taken part in debates.

Ms Ni Riada said it was “wrong” of both Mr Gallagher and Mr Higgins not to turn up to some of the debates, while Ms Freeman accused Mr Gallagher of arrogance.

Mr Gallagher replied that it was not fair for five candidates to turn up and have a go at each other while one escaped scrutiny. He said none of the candidates should have debated unless Mr Higgins participated.

The election will be held on Friday.