Rivals press frontrunner over Fianna Fáil links

 

THE INDEPENDENT candidate Seán Gallagher came under attack from rivals over his past links with Fianna Fáil and the construction industry in the latest televised presidential debate, on TG4.

Mr Gallagher also suggested the possibility of exploring a revision of the national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann. That was immediately challenged by Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, who said the existing words should be retained.

All seven candidates took part in the pre-recorded debate which was screened by the Irish-language broadcaster last night. Mr Gallagher, whose support levels have surged in recent opinion polls, was the focus of most critical comment from other contenders.

Labour candidate Michael D Higgins, seen as Mr Gallagher’s main rival, referred to his opponent’s involvement with the construction sector during the boom years.

In a pointed comment, he said there was a “speculative economy that Seán might favour and a social economy that I might favour”.

Independent candidate David Norris drew attention to Mr Gallagher’s Fianna Fáil past, saying Mr Gallagher was a member of the party’s national executive until earlier this year. “It seems extraordinary that he only attended two or three meetings when 430,000 people were unemployed,” he said.

Mr McGuinness portrayed Mr Gallagher as part of the “establishment that ran Ireland into the ground”.

Mr Gallagher defended his past associations with Fianna Fáil and the home-cabling company Smarthomes. He said he made no apology for being an entrepreneur for a decade and asserted he was a social and community worker before becoming involved in business.

Only one of the seven, Mr Higgins, is fluent in Irish. The format of the debate had each of the candidates read a short prepared statement in Irish. The debate, chaired by current affairs presenter Páidí Ó Lionáird, was conducted mostly in English, with Mr Higgins speaking in Irish.

There was an incident at the beginning of the recording in the early afternoon when Fine Gael candidate Gay Mitchell removed his microphone and walked out of the studio in what seemed like a protest. It emerged that he had not been aware that the Irish script was to be delivered “as live”. Mr Mitchell was more subdued than in recent debates. He emphasised that he would be an independent president if elected, although “congruent” with the Coalition government.

Independent candidate Mary Davis challenged Mr Norris’s assertion that he was the only “24-carat independent candidate”, while Dana Rosemary Scallon said she had no regrets about entering the race.