Presidential debate: Higgins attacked for use of Government jet

Casey accuses incumbent of telling ‘lies’ as candidates trade criticisms in heated discussion

President Michael D. Higgins, speaking during a presidential debate on RTÉ, has defended his use of the government jet to travel to Belfast to deliver a speech. Video: RTÉ

 

Front-runner President Michael D Higgins came under sustained attack for using his Government jet for a trip to Belfast in the final presidential debate involving all six candidates.

Mr Higgins, who enjoys an enormous lead in the polls, has been criticised in recent days for changing accounts of why he used the Learjet for the 154km trip to Belfast in May.

In the presidential debate on RTÉ’s Prime Time on Tuesday night Mr Higgins clashed with other candidates with one, Peter Casey, accusing him of telling “lies” on the issue.

When asked, Mr Higgins said there were both security and logistical reasons for using the jet, saying he would not have been able to fulfil a lecture engagement in Belfast had he not used it.

“In relation to the jet, I have used it twice in the last 12 months.” He later clarified that that was twice in Ireland.

Independent candidate Seán Gallagher said taking a Learjet for a 100-mile trip “sends out the wrong message. You know in your heart it was not a good move.”

Mr Casey said Mr Higgins was telling “lies” about the jet. He said Mr Higgins had used it four times this year.

Mr Higgins responded to Mr Casey’s accusations by saying it was his practice “not to comment on people who say I am incapable of telling the truth”.

The six candidates repeatedly traded criticisms during the heated final debate.

Clashes

There were clashes on Mr Gallagher’s public record over the past seven years; his decision not to participate in the first TV debate; Liadh Ní Riada’s views on the HPV vaccine, Joan Freeman’s assertion that Pieta House has saved 30,000 lives; and Gavin Duffy’s plan to set up a youth corps.

Ms Freeman said the focus should be on the message.

“There’s a land outside of Dublin – it’s called the rest of Ireland,” she said. She said what communities were missing was someone to join the dots and bring them together.”

Defending again the loan she received from a US-based businessman, she argued the establishment tried to stop the election and said she was standing against four millionaires, and a candidate backed by Sinn Féin.

Ms Ní Riada admitted it was “an error” to have expressed concern about the lack of information available on the HPV vaccine. She also accepted she was not paid the average national wage.

Mr Gallagher criticised Mr Higgins for not turning up for Thursday night’s debate on Virgin Media One but was criticised by others for not taking part in the first debate.

Mr Higgins justified his decision not to participate in the final debate on the grounds he has “obligations as sitting President of Ireland”.

Mr Casey also attacked Mr Gallagher saying he had “shot himself in the foot” during the RTÉ debate seven years ago and “doesn’t deserve a penny”. He also said he would appoint an all-female council of State.