Miriam Lord: Higgins, informed and eloquent. Casey, a street fighter

It is lowest common denominator stuff, but Casey knows exactly what he is doing

The first televised presidential debate featuring all six candidates was hosted by Pat Kenny on Virgin Media One and was dominated by the controversy surrounding Peter Casey's comments on Travellers . Video: Virgin Media One

 

This was going to be good.

With the delicious prospect of a possible killer tweet to keep us all watching until the very end.

Of which, sadly, there was none.

“All six microphones will be open at all times,” announced Pat Kenny. You may know him from such programmes as Pat Kenny’s Big Debate.

Wednesday night’s encounter on Virgin Media One wasn’t that big, as it turned out. But it was quite entertaining, not least for the efforts of rampaging candidate Peter Casey to take sitting president Michael D Higgins out of the game.

Casey didn’t succeed, but his determination to do so, right down to a surprising amount of negative research from a candidate who gives the impression he doesn’t give a damn, was fascinating.

In a reversal of reality, Casey stood to the far left on screen and Higgins to the far right

Kenny was hosting the first televised debate of the presidential election which involved all six candidates. The two who went missing from other outings – incumbent Michael D Higgins and his self-appointed understudy Sean Gallagher – having deigned to grace the proceedings with their presence.

The way the campaign had been progressing thus far – lacklustre would be a kind description – the debate wasn’t guaranteed to garner a lot of interest from viewers.

But Casey, the millionaire businessman turned TV "Dragon" entrepreneur and a no-hoper in the opinion polls, changed all that. Through a series of deliberate, provocative statements on Travellers and other issues, he shouldered himself into the media spotlight in the most cynical manner.

Permission to interrupt

Headlines and blanket converage ensued. Casey will add a few percentage points to his rock-bottom poll figures as a result of his remarks about Travellers.

It really is lowest common denominator stuff, but Peter Casey knows exactly what he is doing.

See? The debate is hardly over and we’re writing and talking about him.

In studio, the six stood at their lecterns, with permission to interrupt, and more or less behaved for the duration of the debate. In a reversal of reality, Casey stood to the far left on screen and Higgins to the far right.

The rest, in the middle, were something of a blur in an event which primarily became a clash between the two. Of the rest of the candidates, media trainer and businessman Gavin Duffy made the strongest impression, Joan Freeman came across as rather prickly when reacting badly to a well-meaning compliment, Sean Gallagher (second last time out and exuding an air of hurt entitlement) was almost invisible, and we couldn’t get beyond the enamel Irish Tricolour beaming out at us from Liadh Ní Riada’s lapel.

(Left to right) Presidential candidates Peter Casey, Seán Gallagher, Liadh Ní Riada, Michael D Higgins, Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy pictured alongside host Pat Kenny ahead of Virgin Media Television’s presidential debate. Photograph: Brian McEvoy.
Presidential candidates Peter Casey, Seán Gallagher, Liadh Ní Riada, Michael D Higgins, Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy alongside host Pat Kenny ahead of Virgin Media Television’s presidential debate. Photograph: Brian McEvoy

The Sinn Féin candidate occasioned mass fainting fits in Republican circles when she declared in an earlier debate that, as president, she would wear the poppy emblem. Smelling salts had to be administered in the ranks.

By proudly flaunting the Tricolour, sensibilities were soothed.

Ní Riada was first to arrive on the night, rolling up in her party’s large campaign coach, aka the “Barney Bus” because of its cuddly, dinosaur purple, paint job.

Freeman was next to arrive, keeping her powder dry and promising to talk to media on the way out.

‘Close to the wind’

Gallagher hobbled in with very strong support – wife Trish on one side and a crutch on the other. It was Michael D who had the dodgy knee seven years ago and it did him no harm.

Candidate traffic control in Ballymount was doing a good job. Gallagher cleared the Virgin Media runway before Casey landed, his words “racist”, “very disappointing” evaporating into the air as the person at whom they were directed arrived.

By now very well aware of the controversy his comments about Travellers were causing (and soon to milk them further in the debate), Casey arrived and asked “How can they be racist if they’re [Travellers] not a different race? The question doesn’t make any sense.”

Michael D bustled in and said nothing.

Duffy was last to arrive, remarking darkly that Casey was “sailing very close to the wind”.

“We’re ready to ask the tough questions to help you to decide who should be the next president of Ireland,” promised Pat, cheerily. “In spite of what the polls may say, with nine days to go, it is still all to play for.”

'You didn’t ask me, Gavin. That’s a lie. And if you had asked me, I would have said no,' shot back the pugnacious Casey

All the candidates condemned Casey’s “rascist” comments. He looked quite chuffed. Then he said he wants to represent all Irish citizens. Including Travellers, wondered Kenny?

“Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

It was a strange debate for the job of president, ranging from Travellers, to hunting, housing and the IRA. The finances of the office didn’t come up until the end and the incumbent shipped the criticism which came his way.

Gallagher didn’t mention Michael D’s age, saying: “If you want more of what we’ve had for the last seven years then you already have your president”. But he would breath energy and new life into the role. “I understand what it takes to grow jobs.”

That’ll be novel for them in the walled garden in the Áras.

Ní Riada was all for making sure “our democracy is stronger because there is no cosy consensus between the President and the Government”.

Duffy shared “our vision, hopes and dreams for the nation”. Because “by being ambitious for Ireland there is no barrier to what we can achieve”.

Michael D talked. And then talked. And talked some more. “After seven more years I will have delivered practical initiatives, based on values, sparkling conversation and change.

“And I will have spoken with authenticity both at home and abroad.”

‘I don’t need rescuing’

Freeman is majoring on mental health.

We thought it would be a case of everyone going after the incumbent from the start. But it was Casey who got the first going over and Gallagher got it after him.

The Traveller controversy was given welly. Duffy said he asked Casey to withdraw his remarks. “You didn’t ask me, Gavin. That’s a lie. And if you had asked me, I would have said no,” shot back the pugnacious Casey.

Freeman made a very valid point – don’t entertain Casey. “We’re feeding the beast here.”

Then Gallagher was asked if he felt cheated he didn’t win the last time.

“Your problem is you’re living back in 2011, Sean,” said Duffy to a rather petulant look from Gallagher.

Joan found the “arrogance” of Gallagher and Higgins, who didn’t turn up for all the debates “deeply offensive”.

“I do want to say one thing about not turning up. I’ve been turning up since 1969!” retorted the incumbent to applause.

You’ll never get a short answer from Michael D Higgins. And so it went. Barbs traded here and there.

Duffy argued that it’s not fair that non-politicians are not given a fair hearing. Take Joan, he said. She’s done great work, and to think because she voted no in the abortion referendum that she cannot be president. “Joan, it’s shocking!”

“Thank you, but I don’t need rescuing,” she tartly replied.

“Ah, no, no, no, no, Joan, sorry, please – I didn’t mean it like that ...,” insisted Gavin, and him from outside the political bubble, and him the son of a pig farmer. (They are very poor, apparently.)

Duffy is already imagining the role. The salary, he said, is too high “for what we do... ”

It was an entertaining hour-and-a-half.

Michael D Higgins was the most informed and eloquent. Casey, a street fighter. The rest sort of held their own.

But it won’t halt the incumbent’s gallop.

Just bring Casey up in the polls and increase his notoriety.

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