Presidential candidates in fiery exchanges during final TV debate

Fiery words have been exchanged between the Irish presidential candidates and the hosts of the final live TV debate of the campaign.

Five of the six candidates vying for the highest office in the land participated in a special Tonight Show election programme on Virgin Media One on Wednesday.

Co-hosts Ivan Yates and Matt Cooper dismissed the campaign as “bland and boring”, to which Senator Joan Freeman replied: “I agree.”

The candidates – Ms Freeman, Sinn Fein MEP Liadh Ni Riada and businessmen Sean Gallagher, Peter Casey and Gavin Duffy – were grilled for more than an hour.

Incumbent President Michael D Higgins, who is running for a second term in office, declined to take part.

Mr Duffy, a former investor on Ireland’s Dragons’ Den TV programme, said it was ironic that the candidates were being asked whether they were wasting their time given Mr Higgins’s absence.

“I’m certainly not wasting my time turning up here,” Mr Duffy said. “I think people do want a change.”

Mr Casey hit the headlines last week over controversial comments he made about the Traveller community, but when asked whether he had dragged the campaign into the gutter, he said he had only “pointed out divides” that already exist.

He faced calls to withdraw from the race after he said Travellers were simply people camping on someone else’s land and that recognition of them as members of an ethnic minority was a “load of nonsense”.

He said during Wednesday’s debate that the role of president is to be a voice for the people who need to be heard.

“Middle Ireland needs to be heard,” he said.

Mr Cooper accused Mr Casey of pulling a “stunt” when he announced last weekend that he was taking time to consider whether to continue to run for the presidency.

The debate was the last chance for the public to see the candidates questioned before polling day on Friday.

Mr Higgins is favourite to retain the presidency.

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