By Daniel McConnell, Political Editor
Update 6.26pm: President Michael D Higgins has promised to provide a “formal statement” about spending at Áras an Uachtarain, as he defended his unaudited annual allowance of €317,000.
Officially launching his campaign in Dublin, President Higgins said he had no difficulty answering questions about the allowance, which he said is spent on garden parties and tea parties as well as the hosting of foreign leaders.
“I have no difficulty in constructing a formal statement that can live within the Constitution and at the same time accept the independence of the president, whoever he or she is,” he said of the allowance.
The allowance has been in existence since 1938 and was set at its present level of €317,000 in 1998.
Addressing the issue of transparency at the Aras, President Higgins said he has since the summer move to supply more information.
He indicated the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) could play a role in that process.
During a lengthy press conference, President Higgins defended his stay in a luxurious five-star hotel in Geneva where the top suites can cost €3,000 a night, saying he doesn’t make arrangements for such overnights.
President Higgins said it is the job of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to decide where he stays when he is abroad and he is not consulted about that.
“It is a question I never ask. I don’t really think… about all of that when I do go abroad,” he said.
“The ambassador and the host country are involved and then there are those who have security concerns,” he said.
The Aras confirmed Mr Higgins travelled to Geneva to speak at an event hosted by the International Labour Organisation but refused to comment on claims by Senator Gerard Craughwell that he stayed in a top suite in a hotel that boasts a Michelin Star restaurant and €3,000-a-night rooms named after composers, actresses and French politicians.
President Higgins was asked about the comments made by fellow candidate Peter Casey, which appeared to suggest that a recent security incident involving an intruder at the Aras was a stunt.
Responding to questions as to what happened, he said: “I do hope you have an opportunity to ask Mr Casey about his language and his use of it,” he said. “The gate was open and (the intruder) drove in and the door was open and came into a door beside my office. We had a conversation. There were a few things we discussed. When that was finished I left the room under my own volition. She was then interviewed by a senior garda. She was an unemployed person. I wished her well. That’s how it should be,” he said.
Responding directly to Mr Casey’s charge that it was a stunt, he said: “Maybe that candidate is not too long back from America.”
Asked about comments from his rivals about his age, Mr Higgins (77) said he was “fit and healthy”.
“I have much more energy and efficiency than in 2011," he said, because he had undergone an operation on his knee back then.
“I don’t drink and don’t smoke and I have a yoga teacher,” he said to laughter.
Asked about the likely impact of Brexit, President Higgins said he is the best person to be Ireland’s voice through the UK's exit from the EU.
“They believe that Ireland’s voice can and must matter in a difficult global landscape.”
He called for Ireland to be a champion for human rights and for sustainable development, as well as peace. He also said he would continue to deepen connections with the Irish diaspora.
By Denise O'Donoghue
Update 5.23pm: Michael D. Higgins launched his campaign for the forthcoming Presidential election today.
At his campaign headquarters in central Dublin, under a campaign banner of ‘A President for us all,’ Michael D. Higgins spoke about how much he has learnt from conversations with people across Ireland over the course of the Presidency, and how their concerns, ideas and vision had inspired him to stand for a second term.
“I am offering myself as a candidate because I am passionate about the challenges and possibilities of the coming years,” he said.
In setting out his vision, Michael D. Higgins, who is an independent candidate, spoke about a real republic of equality, sustainability and possibility.
"As President, I can offer an authentic understanding of the many strands that make up our national story, however I am also passionate about the next chapters and the new possibilities we will weave together," said President Higgins.
"My campaign will be modern, energetic and inclusive, drawing on the enthusiasm of thousands of supporters from all walks of life in communities across Ireland.
The incumbent has rejected questions about whether his age is an issue in the election saying it should be about someone's cognitive ability.
He also defended the €317,000 payment made to the President to fund Áras events, saying he never sees any of it and it is in the power of the Oireachtas to change it.
Mr Higgins says he will participate in as many debates during the campaign as possible.
He also said he has a yoga teacher which is helping him to feel young and have more energy than he did in 2011.
"I don't drink, I don't smoke and I have a yoga teacher," he said.
Building on the successful previous initiatives of his Presidency, including ‘Being Young and Irish,’ ‘Glaoch,’ and ‘the Ethics Initiative,’ President Higgins will be announcing three key initiatives over the next three weeks.
If elected, these would be integral to his second term. They will be launched at events around the country over the course of the campaign.