Presidential debate: Michael D and Sean Gallagher weren't there. Claire Byrne was barely there

Arguably the most enthusiastic contributor to ‘Claire Byrne Live’ is cut off by an ad break

Peter Casey; Liadh Ní Riada; Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy. Photograph: Julien Behal

Peter Casey; Liadh Ní Riada; Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

And so it comes to this: a “presidential debate” without the President, Michael D. Higgins, or his nearest rival, Sean Gallagher. If that suggests a panel without much amperage, it may not not bode well that the four remaining candidates on their respective, very expensive moonshots should need the term “debate” explained to them.

“It is a debate,” the host of Claire Byrne Live (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) tells the hopefuls, “so feel free to get involved and make yourselves heard over the course of the debate.” What does such an instruction say about the enthusiasm of the candidates, or even of the show? Doesn’t anybody want to be here?

If Byrne feels jilted, she does her level best not to show it. Even when millionaire businessman and former Dragon’s Den star Gavin Duffy addresses the elephants who are not in the room (“thinking they’re above the Irish people”) and Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada bemoans their “air of entitlement”, Byrne remains stoically impartial.

“In fairness to him, he did defend those charges,” she says on Michael D. Higgins’ behalf, warding Duffy away from one open goal, adding, some time later, “It is my job as a fair moderator to correct falsehoods.”

One such inaccuracy, as everybody knows, is that the role of the president of Ireland is anything greater than symbolic. Judging from tonight’s programme, though, some candidates are letting their metaphors get away from them.

“He is the influencer-in-chief,” is how one candidate defines the role, as though the president might wield a golden Instagram account.

Senator and psychologist Joan Freeman, paying tribute to former president Mary McAleese’s “building bridges” campaign metaphor, instead wants to bring “wellness to our country”.

At least Casey is more concrete. “I want to build a platform where we can connect with the people living abroad,” he insists. “A platform for business,” he elaborates. “They can export their products using this platform.”

Wait. Does this man want to build an actual platform?

Things keep getting sillier. Casey, who announced recently that he was not a feminist, now announces he would use his seven nominations to the Council of State to appoint seven women.

Who would he nominate, Byrne asks? Caught on the hop, Casey first suggests Joan Freeman, the woman standing beside him, and, with some more time for mature reflection, then suggests Claire Byrne, the woman standing in front of him.

Perhaps Byrne would consider it, because she currently seems about as fulsomely present as Sean Gallagher. “One of the main roles of the presidency is to maintain the Constitution,” she puts it, as though the Constitution was a shrubbery or a six pack: “Do you have a favourite bit?”

A favourite bit?

From the audience comes the Donald Trump question: Are there any world leaders the candidates would refuse to meet? “I think he’s an international embarrassment,” Casey says of Trump, a dilettantish businessman who made his name on a reality TV show and then decided to run for president. You can see his point.

The questions become more individually trolling: the Presidential inauguration would fall on Armistice day ... would Ní Riada wear the poppy? She would, says the Sinn Féin candidate, “extending the hand of peace and friendship” to “reach out to our Unionist brothers and sisters”.

The small matter of money arises. Given the millionaire status of three of the candidates, the political-party backing of two, and the fact that Freeman’s run has been made possible by a personal loan of €120,000 from an ex-boyfriend, much time is spent probing the general unfairness that not just anybody can get up and run for president.

(Why, just imagine the TV debates if they could!)

Can Duffy afford to lose his estimated personal investment of €300,000, Byrne asks. “I don’t think anyone can afford to lose that money,” he says.

Can Casey? “Oh, yeah,” he smiles. “I’ve done it a couple of times in the past.”

Towards the end of the show, when the audience and some of the candidates are visibly wilting, some much-needed excitement arrives in the form of one disruptive audience member. Byrne apologies and cuts to a break. Maybe that’s for the best.

But maybe, given all the show’s encomiums to political participation and representing “the people of Ireland”, it’s a little ungrateful. Besides, at least one person really wanted to be here tonight.

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