Áras candidates set out positions in first debate


The first presidential debate has taken place today with all seven candidates putting forward their case for being chosen to succeed Mary McAleese as President of Ireland.

The debate, which was broadcast on RTÉ's News at One this afternoon, heard candidates discussing a range of issues.

Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell claimed he had the experience and energy to last the next seven years of the presidency. Mr Mitchell said he was not afraid to ruffle a few feathers when necessary to stand up for the rights of people.

Mr Mitchell said that although the role of President is not party political, it is political. He also said the President must make "lonely and important decisions" on referring legislation to the Supreme Court.

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness said he would work in co-operation with the Government to attract investment. He again rejected claims he had stayed on as a member of the IRA past 1974 and said he wanted to give leadership in a time of greed. He said he had never denied his past and had used his influence to help bring a "break in the cycle of conflict" that existed in Northern Ireland.

Mr McGuinness also claimed his track record as a peacemaker was known internationally and stressed his background in negotiating landmark deals such as the Good Friday agreement. He added that there was a lot of unhappiness in the country and that it was hugely important to move on.

Special Olympics chief executive Mary Davis said Ms McAleese had left "very big shoes to fill" and that she was the one who was best suited to succeed her. Ms Davis said she would like to see Áras an Uachtaráin as a "very open home" that should be renamed "Áras na Daoine".

For his part, Séan Gallagher claimed he was "relevant" to the needs of the country at the moment and stressed the need to build on the country's strengths. Mr Gallagher said if elected he wanted to reach out to those who had been excluded such as carers, small business owners and students. He also reached out to farmers, saying agriculture is one of the pillars that will help to rebuild the economy.

Senator David Norris again defended the decision not to publish controversial clemency letters sent on behalf of former partner Ezra Nawi on legal advice because he could prejudice the situation. Mr Norris said he was able to deal with political dilemmas and stressed his background as a long-standing member of the Séanad, adding he was well aware of the protocol relating to the passing of legislation in the statute books.

The Senator also said he would have no problem undertaking a State visit to Israel or of greeting Pope Benedict in an official capacity, despite holding different views to him on a range of subjects.

Dana Rosemary Scallon defended her decision to enter the presidential race late, saying the family had experienced a number of bereavements in recent years. "I wasn't really ready and neither was my family for this," she said.

Ms Scallon said members of the public had told her they wanted a wider choice in the election. She also said issues of inequality need to be tackled in Ireland and distanced herself from the Catholic Church by stressing she had previously taken a stand against the bishops in some areas.

Ms Scallon claimed anything she had ever done had always involved giving the people all the information for them to make an informed decision.

The former Eurovision MEP said she believed she would grow into the role of President and stressed that it was not compulsory to be a barrister or lawyer to serve in the role. She also claimed to be a fast learner and reminded her fellow candidates that she had previously served in Europe as an MEP.

Labour's Michael D Higgins said he had the stamina and energy to be President. He also said he had been interested in standing for the presidency in 2004 to begin a debate on many of the issues now coming up for discussion.

Mr Higgins also stressed that defending the Government is not the job of the President. He said he believed a review of Article 26 of the Constitution should be considered and added he did not have any problems with the Constitution because he taught it as a political scientist.

A second debate is to take place at UCD this evening featuring Mr Higgins, Ms Davis, Mr Mitchell and Mr Gallagher. All seven presidential candidates are also expected to appear on RTÉ's Primetime show tonight.