Two candidates absent for first televised Irish presidential debate

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The first televised Irish presidential debate took place on Monday night, with only four of the six candidates taking part.

Joan Freeman, Gavin Duffy, Peter Casey and Liadh Ni Riada appeared on Claire Byrne Live on RTE One, with President Michael D Higgins and Sean Gallagher notably absent.

Presenter Claire Byrne asked the candidates what they thought of the absentee nominees as the first question.

Sinn Fein MEP Ms Ni Riada said: “I think it’s a real sign of thinking they’re above Irish people and it disrespects the office, the idea you’re above it is completely unacceptable.”

Mr Duffy made a pointed dig at fellow businessman Mr Gallagher, saying: “They got plenty of notice, we haven’t heard from Sean Gallagher for seven years, he should be here.”

Mr Casey referred to Mr Gallagher’s previous membership of Fianna Fail despite being an independent candidate, saying: “I’m disappointed the Fianna Fail candidate could not be here.”

He added that he was not surprised Mr Higgins did not attend and claimed the president could not defend his expenses at a debate on Saturday.

Mr Casey then claimed Mr Higgins had extensive dog grooming bills, to which Byrne read out a statement sent in by the president that the claim was inaccurate.

After the statement was read out, Mr Duffy accused RTE of favouring the president and acting as his “spokesperson”.

During the debate, it was noted that inauguration day would fall on Armistice Day this year and Byrne asked the candidates if they would be willing to wear a poppy.

Ms Ni Riada said that although she would be conflicted, she would wear the poppy as a symbolic gesture.

“It would be a sign of maturity, extending peace and friendship in a modern and progressive Ireland,” she said.

It was pointed out that many in Ms Ni Riada’s party would object to her wearing a poppy.

“I agree, but we have come to a stage that we are mature enough to have those conversations, we have to extend the hand of friendship, you have to put personal feelings aside to create a platform and create a shared Ireland.”

The studio audience gave Ms Ni Riada a round of applause for her answer.

Both Mr Casey and Ms Freeman said they would wear a poppy as a symbolic gesture.

Mr Duffy said he would not wear a poppy, but he would lay a wreath, as he did not believe the president should wear any political symbols.

All four candidates agreed they would meet any head of state who invited Ireland, despite personal feelings, referencing US President Donald Trump.

A key point discussed was transparency in the presidency, and the recent Public Accounts Committee which uncovered an unaudited allowance of around 317,000 euro to the president.

“I do wonder what the agenda was behind the timing of the committee, but we should have been looking at this seven years ago,” Ms Freeman said.

During a question about Mr Casey’s wealth and businesses, where he admitted he could write off 200,000 that would be lost if he did not get enough votes, a performer known as Bunty McFuff stood up and began shouting at the former Dragons’ Den star and the show was forced to go to an unplanned ad break.

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