Presidential candidates clash over use of government jet

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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 to the government jet four times this year.

President Higgins denied the claim, stating he had used the jet twice in the past 12 months.

Irish presidential race
Michael D Higgins (Niall Carson/PA)

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

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 on Friday.

The president has come under increasing pressure about his use of the Government’s private jet to fly to Belfast in May.

He claimed that security concerns meant he had to use the Government plane and a State car.

The former Dragons’ Den investor added: “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.”

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

He said his life had been about “authenticity” and he had been a campaigner and stood for values when they were unpopular.

The 77-year old, who is running for a second term in office, said of his use of planes: “Frankly I prefer to go by road all of the time.”

Businessman Sean 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.

Sinn Fein candidate Liadh NI Riada said it was “disappointing” that the president did not have “more foresight” to be more accountable.

All six candidates, 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 debate on RTE One’s Prime Time programme.

It was the last chance for the public to see all of the candidates questioned at the same time before polling day.

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.

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.

He opted not to take part in RTE’s Claire Byrne Live programme last week because the president was unavailable due to presidential commitments.

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 that will not be participating.

Mr Gallagher said the skill sets needed for the next seven years were going to be different, and he had ideas he would like to bring forward.

He added that he wanted to transform the role of the president and he wanted Ireland to become a role model of an inclusive society.

Mr Higgins said what a president can do is start discussions on issues such as climate change and turn them into reality.

Ms Ni Riada said what mattered was that there was a modern, progressive president in office.

She added that without Sinn Fein there might not have been a presidential election this year.

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