Six presidential candidates go head to head in first televised debate

The first televised Irish presidential debate featuring all six candidates was held on Wednesday night.

The candidates, current President Michael D Higgins, Senator Joan Freeman, Sinn Fein MEP Liadh Ni Riada and three businessmen, Sean Gallagher, Peter Casey and Gavin Duffy, took questions from veteran broadcaster Pat Kenny.

Mr Casey faced calls to withdraw from the race on Wednesday morning after he said Irish Travellers are people camping on someone else’s land.

Businessman Mr Casey claimed Ireland’s recognition of them as members of an ethnic minority was “a load of nonsense”.

He stood by his comments on the Virgin Media One show on Wednesday night, referencing an ongoing dispute over housing between Travellers and local authority in Tipperary.

“We have so many wonderful nationalities here, it’s wrong to single out one particular ethnic group differently,” he said.

“One of the county councils who endorsed me was Tipperary, and as you know we have a housing crisis at the moment.

“When I was down there, there was 1.7 million euro spent building six houses that the travelling community wouldn’t move into because they wanted sheds and two stables and one acre of land.

“Why should they be given the right to turn down a house? I think that is wrong.”

Mr Casey accused the fellow nominees of lying about their feelings towards Travellers and said: “It’s like giving chocolate to a diabetic, you’re not helping them.”

Mr Gallagher suggested Mr Casey educate himself before replying: “That’s a racist comment, Peter.”

Irish presidential race
Liadh Ni Riada (Niall Carson/PA)

Sinn Fein’s Ms Riada was asked about her “ambivalence to violence” in regard to past comments about IRA atrocities.

“I think any atrocity like that (the Enniskillen bombing) should be condemned, but look, the IRA have been gone the last 20 years, we have a peace process in place, we should be cementing that.

“Would you call Nelson Mandela a terrorist?”

Mr Kenny then suggested that Brexit could bring back the IRA, before he moved on to the next question.

Later in the programme, Ms Freeman, who voted No in the Repeal the 8th referendum, was accused of being out of step with the majority of the public who voted to repeal Ireland’s abortion laws.

“I don’t think the Irish people are as judgmental as you have just been, Pat (Kenny),” she said.

“I reflect what Ireland is, this is what makes us democratic, we’re able to discuss and debate.

“It was my personal conviction, that has nothing to do with my public duty.”

During the debate, the three businessmen admitted they supported water charges.

Mr Higgins, Mr Gallagher and Mr Duffy revealed that they were landlords when asked directly about the housing crisis.

"The Presidential salary should be halved.

"The office has to be fully transparent & accountable. This should have been dealt with seven years ago." #Aras18#LiadhForPresident#ANewIreland#PKDebate

— Liadh Ní Riada MEP (@LiadhNiRiadaMEP) October 17, 2018

When the debate turned to presidential expenses, Mr Casey repeatedly levelled charges at Mr Higgins about his spending.

Mr Higgins labelled the charges “a fantasy list”.

“I don’t draw my ministerial pension, I’m perfectly happy to accept any salary that the government suggest,” he said.

“About the 317,000 euro you ask about, I have no problem appointing an independent audit.

“It would be entirely wrong to personalise or politicise this.”

The vote will be held on October 26.