President Michael D Higgins was repeatedly attacked for his “extravagant” lifestyle and Learjet trips amid claims that he “could not lie straight in bed” over spending during tonight's high-profile presidential debate.
The questions were thrown at President Higgins in the final head-to-head battle between all six candidates, which also saw Peter Casey labelled “Nigel Farage” for his views on Travellers and claims their ethnic minority identity lets them “benefit financially with houses and fields”.
In a lively 90-minute debate which saw candidates attempt to damage their rivals in one last bid for the Áras, President Higgins repeatedly clashed with rivals over his alleged spending habits.
After President Higgins he travelled to Belfast on May 29 by Learjet because he needed to also attend “an international piano competition”, Mr Casey said “he couldn’t lie straight in bed” and noted the previous claim that it was for security reasons by highlighting a previous trip to Munster by saying: “Were there security issues in Kerry?”
Gavin Duffy also attacked President Higgins, saying the president is distracted by the “trappings” of power, while Sean Gallagher said there are similarities with the 2009 resignation of ex-Fianna Fáil ceann comhairle John O Donoghue.
However, President Higgins continued to defend himself, saying: “I don’t consider it an extravagance” and stressing his entire life has been about “authenticity”.
The early exchanges of the debate were dominated by Mr Casey’s recent remarks about Travellers, with Sinn Féin candidate Liadh NíRiada labelling him “Nigel Farage”.
Ms Ni Riada faced further questions about her views on the HPV vaccine, while senator Joan Freeman angrily rejected suggestions that her Pieta House has not saved the lives of 30,000 people.
Despite repeatedly attacking other candidates, Mr Gallagher at times appeared angry with other claims from rivals, including when Mr Casey said “I don’t think RTÉ did anything wrong” during the 2011 Tweetgate presidential controversy and Gavin Duffy, who said: “Sean, you don’t want to waste time on something that is an embarrassment to you.”
On their way into RTÉ before the debate began, the five challengers to the incumbent appeared tense at the last chance to personally land a blow on President Higgins and potentially drag themselves back into contention.
Mr Higgins and Mr Casey did not comment to reporters on entering RTÉ’s TV studio.
However, Ms Ní Riada said she was hoping for a “respectful debate with no bombshells”, and Ms Freeman said she was looking forward to “setting out our stalls” after a two-month campaign and just days before Friday’s vote.
The expenses questions continued yesterday, with the Áras defending the news that a woman described by Mr Higgins as his “gifted floral arranger” travelled with the €28,194 official presidential delegation to Australia in 2017.
Meanwhile, Mr Gallagher has confirmed he will take part in the final debate of the presidential campaign on Virgin Media Ireland tomorrow in a last-ditch bid to win over wavering voters, but insisted this is not because he is trailing Mr Higgins by 56 points in the polls.