Debate hears SF candidate Liadh Ní Riada would wear a poppy

Live debate on Claire Byrne show included just four of the six candidates

 Candidates (from left) Peter Casey; Liadh Ní Riada; Gavin Duffy and Joan Freeman before last night’s debate. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Candidates (from left) Peter Casey; Liadh Ní Riada; Gavin Duffy and Joan Freeman before last night’s debate. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Sinn Féin presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada would wear a poppy to commemorate those who died in the first World War, the RTÉ Claire Byrne Live presidential debate heard on Monday night.

The candidate said wearing a poppy would be an internal struggle and she “wouldn’t be jumping up with joy about it” but felt it would be an important gesture.

She was greeted with applause from the audience after saying it would offer and hand of friendship to Unionists. Ms Ní Riada added some in her party might not be enamoured with the gesture.

Sinn Féin has traditionally eschewed the wearing of a poppy, the symbol of the Royal British Legion, on both sides of the border although there is no formal policy against it.

Joan Freeman and Peter Casey said they would wear a poppy while Mr Duffy said he would not wear any symbol but would lay a wreath on Armistice Day.

Ms Ní Riada also said President Michael D Higgins showed “contempt” and “disrespect” for the Irish electorate by not participating in the debate.

The debate included just four of the six candidates. President Higgins declined to take part citing official engagements and Seán Gallagher said he would not partake unless all candidates were present.

Defending his decision not to take part on the RTÉ Six One News earlier, President Higgins said he expected people would be “disappointed”, but it was about “putting the presidency first, and my candidature has to take second place.”

Criticism

All four debate participants criticised the President for not showing up.

Ms Ní Riada said President Higgins and Mr Gallagher’s decision showed “contempt” and “disrespect” for citizens. “This idea they’re above the people of Ireland is completely unacceptable.”

Ms Freeman said Mr Gallagher should have taken part even if the President did not while Gavin Duffy said people haven’t heard much from the businessman in the seven years since he last ran for the office.

Peter Casey said he was not surprised President Higgins didn’t show up as he was unable to answer questions about his use of the Government jet during a radio debate last Friday.

Moderator Claire Byrne said the President did answer those questions. She also said the President’s spokesperson had been in touch to reject previous accusations from Mr Casey that the taxpayer pays for the grooming of his two dogs.

Mr Casey and Mr Duffy responded it wasn’t Ms Byrne’s job to act as a spokesperson for a nominee who was not there. The host responded it was her responsibility to correct falsehoods.

“How do you know it’s false?” Mr Casey asked before Ms Byrne moved on.

Ms Ní Riada said there was no reason the President should be paid a salary of €250,000. And that it should be halved. Mr Duffy said, if the presidency is a ceremonial office, there is no reason it should cost €8.1 million a year to run.

Limits of office

Asked about the limits of the office, Ms Freeman agreed the president has little executive power but can act as the “influencer in chief”.

She said she had the power, as founder of Pieta House, to influence 200,000 to take part in the Darkness into Light Event.

Ms Ní Riada said she would address the Houses of Oireachtas, something the current President has not done. She said her first international trips will be to Palestine. Asked if he would meet US President Donald Trump, Mr Casey said he would but called him “an international embarrassment”.

Ms Ní Riada said she would take the opportunity “to be a positive influence” on Mr Trump on issues such as climate change and his “appalling treatment of women”. She said there is no world leader she would not meet.

Mr Freeman said it would be “such a shame” to destroy the relationship between the US and Ireland be refusing to meet Mr Trump.

Mr Casey said it was wrong for the Public Accounts Committee to start examining the finances of Áras an Uachtaráin a few weeks before the election. Ms Ní Riada said it was unfortunate timing but added the matter could have been dealt with at any time in the last seven years.

At one point Ms Byrne was forced to go to a commercial break after satirist Bunty Twuntingdon McFluff shouted from the audience at Mr Casey.