Casey’s grenades fail to detonate first full presidential debate
Higgins defends use of helicopters as radio debate runs into heavy ground of finances
Presidential candidates Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman, Seán Gallagher, incumbent Michael D Higgins and Liadh Ní Riada in studio for a debate on RTÉ Radio 1 in Dublin. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
It was a stolid start to the first presidential debate to feature all six candidates. Worthy concern was expressed about financial transparency of the office, particularly from businessmen Gavin Duffy and Seán Gallagher, but no telling punches landed.
Listeners must have been reaching for the dial until, about eight minutes in, bottom of the polls businessman Peter Casey lobbed the first grenade: “You take a Learjet to go up to Belfast for goodness sake, that’s the sort of nonsense that shouldn’t be allowed,” he told President Michael D Higgins.
Having grasped the reins for the first time in the RTÉ Radio 1 debate on Saturday, Mr Casey was not about to let go. “You could explain the entourage you take with you when you are doing your foreign junkets and you praise foreign dictators,” said Mr Casey.
An eventual pause for breath allowed Mr Higgins to counter that he had requested the use of a helicopter on only 14 occasions in the last seven years. Not a great riposte but he did make the point that his travel arrangements are made for him, not by him.
Mr Higgins then tried to shift focus away from finances, bringing the conversation around to the purpose of his visit to Northern Ireland and his engagement with all communities in the North.
Seeing someone straying into her territory, Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada, who wants to make Irish unity the “centrepiece” of her presidency, jumped in to say when she visited Northern Ireland she drove. But the presidential hopeful went on to make points about the environmental effect of jet travel, more than their financial costs.
However, Mr Casey was unwilling to let go of his bone: “Why do you need €250,000? Even your dog grooming bills are paid for.”
The response from Mr Higgins that he did not think “only the wealthy who say they will draw no salary from the presidency should be able to offer themselves for election”, prompted RTÉ presenter Cormac Ó hEadhra to turn towards the finances of other candidates, including Mr Casey.
Mr Casey said he had “completely divested” himself of his business interests, before remembering a “small company in Kerry” about which he had forgotten.
Mr Duffy said he had suspended work for his company Gavin Duffy & Associates, while Mr Gallagher said, “I pay my tax in Ireland” and was “happy to publish my tax clearance cert”.
A good 20 minutes in and Independent Senator Joan Freeman, who had not really had a look in so far, decided she had enough of all the money talk: “This whole conversation has been about finances about business,” she said. “We are getting bogged down with the Dragons and their businesses and their finances.”
The intervention only encouraged Mr Ó hEadhra to turn his attentions to a €120,000 loan to Ms Freeman from US-based businessman Des Walsh, of Herbalife, a company which had to pay a substantial fine arising from allegations of pyramid selling.
Ms Freeman said she did not think she was wrong to take the loan, which had been from Mr Walsh’s “personal finances, not from Herbalife” she said, before steering the conversation to the charity she founded, Pieta House, just ahead of the intervention of an advert break.
Following this the debate moved to constitutional matters, where Mr Higgins was clearly comfortable. Mr Duffy, Mr Gallagher and Ms Ní Riada appeared well briefed, but Ms Freeman floundered somewhat, saying she did not feel “qualified to answer the question right now”.
Withering effect of age
It began to look as if the debate was once again getting bogged down, when Mr Casey, who had quietened down, launched his next attack on Mr Higgins, questioning his levels of energy, saying “it’s not his fault he’s 77” and pointing out that he himself got up and “worked out” at 5.30am.
Mr Gallagher decided he had enough of all this non-statesman-like talk – although it was a good 40 minutes in and all the muck had pretty much being slung at this stage – and told Mr Casey he was being “disrespectful” to Mr Higgins. “The man is sitting beside us, he’s the president of Ireland. He’s given his life to public service.”
However, Ms Ní Riada made one of the better interventions of the debate pointing out that Mr Higgins was “also a candidate”. She moved to the “cosy consensus” that there should be a “coronation” for the role. “Nobody should be gifted 14 years irrespective of what they achieved,” she said.
But the debate was in its wind-down phase at this stage. And though candidates were each accorded a minute at the end to deliver a key message, there is probably little new the listener will have learned.
Outside the studio, Mr Casey described the debate as “great fun”. Mr Duffy said he still believed RTÉ was a Higgins fan club, although the President said no one could now say “Michael D isn’t asked the hard questions”.
Ms Freeman said she believed listeners will have been lost in the first 20 minutes of the debate, which was probably the most incisive point of the day.