Higgins will not take part in RTÉ radio debate

Event postponed until Thursday when candidates for presidency officially confirmed

It appears likely that voters will have six candidates to choose from on October 26th. Political correspondent Harry McGee reports.

 

President Michael D Higgins will not take part in the first presidential election debate this week as he is “constrained” by pre-existing diary commitments.

The RTÉ Radio One debate had been scheduled for Wednesday at 1pm, an hour after the deadline for candidates to lodge their nomination papers, but will now take place on Thursday.

It is understood the broadcaster moved the debate after it realised the participants do not formally become candidates until the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, signs off on their nominations on Wednesday afternoon.

A spokesman for Mr Higgins said he would not be taking part in Thursday’s debate as he is “constrained” by pre-existing diary commitments. Mr Higgins has official engagements in Dublin at 11am and 2.30pm, according to the presidential diary on the Áras an Uachtaráin website.

The spokesman said the President “has a long record of participating in debates, and is looking forward to engaging with the other candidates, and answering journalists’ questions, over the next five weeks".

“The campaign team looks forward to talking to broadcasters to explore how this can be done in appropriate and informative ways, and within the constraints of the President’s role and diary.”

The spokesman said Mr Higgins will officially launch his campaign in Dublin on Wednesday.

Five other candidates have secured places on the ballot. Dragons’ Den panellists Seán Gallagher, Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, and Independent Senator Joan Freeman all received the backing of four local authorities. Liadh Ní Riada secured her spot through the support of 20 of Sinn Féin’s TDs and Senators.

Mr Gallagher, who finished second to Mr Higgins in the 2011 election, has stated that he will not take part in debates unless the President does so.

‘Interest of voters’

Mr Casey said he was serious about his “presidential bid and will be attending all of the debates in the interest of voters” and that his rivals should do likewise.

“I can understand why Seán doesn’t want to do the debate because it didn’t work out too well for him the last time,” he added, referencing the controversy that arose after claims were made about Mr Gallagher during an RTÉ debate late in the 2011 campaign.

Mr Duffy and Ms Ní Riada have indicated they will take part but both said Mr Higgins should be there too.

An RTÉ spokesman said “further details regarding the confirmed participants and structure of the programme will be announced closer to the broadcast”.

The debate will proceed with the other candidates if Mr Higgins and Mr Gallagher refuse to take part. If a candidate does not participate they will be asked for a reason and this will be read out on-air.

There has been much speculation on how much Mr Higgins will participate in the campaign. It is not clear – given the non-political and largely ceremonial nature of the role he occupies – how much he is willing to engage in the rough and tumble of a campaign.

His office will be in the spotlight on Tuesday when Martin Fraser, the State’s top civil servant, appears before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee as part of its controversial examination of spending in the President’s office.

The decision to examine such spending on the eve of the election campaign officially starting has drawn criticism from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who have backed Mr Higgins’s reelection.

Mr Fraser’s responsibilities include being accounting officer for the President’s office but he has noted that article 13.8.1 of the Constitution states that the President is not answerable to either house of the Oireachtas or to any court for the exercise and performance of the powers and functions of his office.