'It's his job to show up' - Four presidential candidates criticise President Higgins' absence from debate

'It's his job to show up' - Four presidential candidates criticise President Higgins' absence from debate

President Michael D Higgins and Sean Gallagher have come in for heavy criticism from the four other presidential candidates for not taking part in last night's first televised debate.

They discussed topics including international affairs, Donald Trump and campaign funding, but the absence of two of the candidates preoccupied the opening stages of the debate on Claire Byrne Live.

And when the presenter read out a clarification from the Higgins campaign, the remaining four let their feelings be known, saying: "It's his job to show up."

Joan Freeman, Gavin Duffy, Peter Casey and Liadh Ni Riada appeared on Claire Byrne Live on RTE One, with President Higgins and Mr Gallagher notably absent.

Presenter Claire Byrne asked the candidates what they thought of the absentee nominees as the first question.

Sinn Féin MEP Ms Ni Riada said: “I think it’s a real sign of thinking they’re above Irish people and it disrespects the office, the idea you’re above it is completely unacceptable.”

Mr Duffy made a pointed dig at fellow businessman Mr Gallagher, saying: “They got plenty of notice, we haven’t heard from Sean Gallagher for seven years, he should be here.”

Mr Casey referred to Mr Gallagher’s previous membership of Fianna Fáil despite being an independent candidate, saying: “I’m disappointed the Fianna Fáil candidate could not be here.”

He added that he was not surprised Mr Higgins did not attend and claimed the president could not defend his expenses at a debate on Saturday.

Mr Casey then claimed Mr Higgins had extensive dog grooming bills, to which Byrne read out a statement sent in by the president that the claim was inaccurate.

After the statement was read out, Mr Duffy accused RTE of favouring the president and acting as his “spokesperson”.

During the debate, it was noted that inauguration day would fall on Armistice Day this year and Byrne asked the candidates if they would be willing to wear a poppy.

Ms Ni Riada said that although she would be conflicted, she would wear the poppy as a symbolic gesture.

“It would be a sign of maturity, extending peace and friendship in a modern and progressive Ireland,” she said.

It was pointed out that many in Ms Ni Riada’s party would object to her wearing a poppy.

“I agree, but we have come to a stage that we are mature enough to have those conversations, we have to extend the hand of friendship, you have to put personal feelings aside to create a platform and create a shared Ireland.”

The studio audience gave Ms Ni Riada a round of applause for her answer.

Both Mr Casey and Ms Freeman said they would wear a poppy as a symbolic gesture.

Mr Duffy said he would not wear a poppy, but he would lay a wreath, as he did not believe the president should wear any political symbols.

All four candidates agreed they would meet any head of state who invited Ireland, despite personal feelings, referencing US President Donald Trump.

A key point discussed was transparency in the presidency, and the recent Public Accounts Committee which uncovered an unaudited allowance of around €317,000 to the president.

“I do wonder what the agenda was behind the timing of the committee, but we should have been looking at this seven years ago,” Ms Freeman said.

During a question about Mr Casey’s wealth and businesses, where he admitted he could write off €200,000 that would be lost if he did not get enough votes, a performer known as Bunty McFuff stood up and began shouting at the former Dragons’ Den star and the show was forced to go to an unplanned ad break.

- Press Association

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