Fiery words during presidential debate

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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.”

Mr Yates, a former Fine Gael minister, described the campaign as “inept” and said it demonstrated that the candidates did not understand the “knock-down, drag-out nature of politics”.

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

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

They were asked whether they were all just wasting their time running for the presidency.

Mr Duffy, a former investor on Ireland’s Dragons’ Den TV programme, said it was ironic that they 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”.

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

Mr Cooper went on to accuse 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 because of the controversy.

The businessman, who has lived in the US and Australia for most of his life, faced accusations that he was employing Trump-like tactics.

“You have engaged in the kind of tactics of which Donald Trump would be proud,” Mr Cooper said.

Mr Casey responded: “I’ve been shooting up the polls every day this week.”

Asked about alleged abuse victim Mairia Cahill’s account, Ms Ni Riada said: “Mairia Cahill, what was done to her was wrong.

“No apology will ever undo what was done to her. I’ve always said that what was done to Mairia Cahill was wrong and I’ve apologised profusely about that and it won’t undo it.”

Ms Ni Riada added she would be more than happy to meet with Ms Cahill.

“I hope she does get closure on it and she deserves that closure,” she added.

Ms Cahill, a grand-niece of prominent Belfast republican Joe Cahill, claimed she was sexually abused as a 16-year-old by an alleged IRA member.

The Sinn Fein candidate was also asked about her unvouched expenses as an MEP.

Ms Freeman, founder of suicide prevention charity Pieta House, said the debate seven years ago had been dominated by financial concerns and that nothing seemed to have changed.

She said more than 3,200 people had died by suicide and yet the discussion was still centring on money.

“We need to focus on mental health,” she said.

She admitted she found the campaign difficult, adding: “I had a ball of fear nearly every time I came to do a debate.”

Ms Freeman, who has spent her life campaigning on mental health issues, made the unusual admission to the panel that: “Yes, I’m a one-trick pony but what a very important trick.”

She said Ireland would be a better place in seven years’ time if the theme of the presidency is culture and mental health.

The fact that three of the six presidential hopefuls have been panellists in the Irish version of Dragons’ Den was noted, with one of the “dragons”, Mr Duffy, admitting: “Three of us from the one TV programme is bizarre.”

Asked whether all three businessmen were egomaniacs, Mr Duffy said it was a “perfectly legitimate issue to raise”.

He added: “Definitely there should not have been three from (Dragons’ Den). We’re just splitting the vote, and I thought it was lowering the tone of the election.”

Ms Ni Riada said: “This is becoming a bit of an all-boys’ club here again. Joan and I have to fight tooth and nail to get heard.”

The mood of the debate became more light-hearted as it progressed, with the panellists erupting into laughter over the price of a litre of milk.

Ms Ni Riada said it depended on whether the candidates shopped in Lidl or Tesco.

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

Mr Higgins, who is running for a second seven-year term, is favourite to win the presidency.

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