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Five takeaways from RTÉ's European election debate in Midlands-North-West

Migration was the main issue as some straight-shooters emerged from the pack

1. Saoirse McHugh and Peter Casey take up where they left off

The most memorable things from the Midland North West debate on RTÉ in 2019 were the exchanges between Casey and McHugh. Five years later, they were both positioned beside each other again in the debate, even though Casey was closer to McHugh’s podium than his own at times. She was the person who called Casey out when he said he had been a migrant in three different countries legally.

Didn’t you tweet last year that you entered a country illegally, she asked? Don’t be silly, he chided her.

She was right. The tweet from 2023 was found and reposted almost instantaneously by viewers. He did indeed say that.

There were further exchanges between them on migration and on Israel. “You are a clown, you are a clown, will you stop?” she said later during an exchange on the use of Shannon Airport for US troops.

2. Some great questions were asked but they weren’t really answered

Would Peadar Tóibín relinquish his European seat after only a few months to become a TD again? What grouping would he join? Same for Chris McManus and Sinn Féin: Would the party stay with its current grouping, the leftist GUE-NGL or move on? What is Ming Flanagan’s stance on the war in Ukraine?

Most of the candidates skirted around the questions without answering them directly. Peter Casey was asked if he was standing in the presidential election and replied: “At the moment, I’m going to commit totally to Europe.” It was that kind of a night.

The problem was the format. So many candidates. So many issues to get through. Just as soon as the probing started, presenter Katie Hannon had to move on to the next question or topic.

The most befuddling answer was from McHugh. She was reminded of a tweet she posted in 2020 in which she said: “I don’t believe that our pathway to a just and free society lies in electoral politics.” Asked why she was standing for election if that was the case, she replied that she still believed in what she said in 2020. But at the same time Europe was responsible for 70 per cent of domestic legislation and it was important to be able to do something about it. Her response, in short: Electoral politics is not the answer; electoral politics is the answer.

3. Some straight-shooters emerged from the pack

Best answer of the night went to Ming Flanagan when asked why he had moved from being a Eurosceptic to a non-sceptic. Flanagan was probably the most decisive and animated communicator of the eight people on stage and gave a clever answer. Not Eurosceptic on agriculture and concrete defects, he said when reminding them of the “wins” he said he had got on those two issues in the parliament. “If I see something good I change my mind.” He then went on to say he remained Eurosceptic on Ursula von der Leyen. The European Commission President was name-checked – negatively – about half a dozen times during the hour by him and others.

Flanagan was successful in another age-old ploy of interjecting loudly when his opponents spoke, and then objecting loudly when others interjected against him.

Maria Walsh of Fine Gael, Barry Cowen of Fianna Fáil, and Pauline O’Reilly of the Greens all stuck close to the party line. Walsh said she would support von der Leyen’s second term. She also gave a good defence of her attack on Fianna Fáil candidates as “male, pale and stale”, widening it out to a comment on the lack of diversity in the parliament where 3 per cent were LGBTI and 1 one per cent were people of colour.

Cowen was on his surest footing on agriculture, especially when challenging Tóibín on his claim that the average farmers’ incomes was €25,000 annually, less than the industrial wage. According to Cowen, the figure is €42,000.

Another straight-shooter was Pauline O’Reilly – who was also the most unflappable of the eight. She managed to distinguish herself from the pure idealism of the former Green, McHugh. O’Reilly argued that the Green Party will always opt to be in Government, even if it can’t achieve everything it sets out to do. She asserted that if you have a vision you need to take action, and on issues like climate change and biodiversity, you can’t wait.

4. Casey does unconventionality with a smile

Luke Ming Flanagan with the El Diablo beard may look the most different but it was Casey who was the outlier. His contribution to the agriculture debate was that he had owned two farms.

He then came up with the novel suggestion that the Israel-Palestine conflict needed not a two-state solution but a three-state solution on the basis that the West Bank and Gaza were 70 kilometre apart. As Irish Times Political Editor Pat Leahy remarked in an observation piece last night, why not a four-state solution while you are at it?

Then, slightly bizarrely, in the middle of the debate Katie Hannon informed the viewers that Casey was no longer at his podium. Was it a walkout? Apparently, there was a problem with his microphone. He sauntered back in a few minutes later, unruffled and smiling as he had been all evening.

5. Migration was the main issue

At least a dozen of the 27 candidates in Midlands North West are calling for stricter restrictions on migrants. The person with the strongest views was Casey, who said the judgment in a Belfast court that asylum seekers could not be transferred to Rwanda would lead to a “tsunami” of illegal migrants crossing to Northern Ireland and going across the border to Midlands North West. He wanted any measure that made it difficult for those to make it into the Republic.

Tóibín has long called for a “mature debate” on migration and has argued that the current system for dealing with asylum seekers is not fit for purpose. He interjected often, and repeated a message that Ireland was ceding too much sovereignty to the EU on migration, defence policy and agriculture.

Barry Cowen called for a “reset” on immigration. “Like the electorate, I support legal migration but we need fast, fair and firm action to tackle illegal immigration,” he said.

Much of the debate on this issue centred around the EU Migration Pact and its provisions for detention centres. Candidates from the Government parties supported the pact, all others opposed it.

If you were to rank support for the EU, there were three pro-Europe candidates in Monday night’s debate; four candidates who were not the EU’s greatest fans; and one, Flanagan, who was half sceptic, half flag-waver. There are another 19 candidates in the constituency for voters to consider before they cast their ballots on June 7th.