Debate descends into shouting match

SENATOR David Norris refused to disclose the source of his legal advice not to publish controversial letters of clemency during last night’s presidential debate.

“Dirty tricks” were denied by all candidates during the 90-minute TV3 live broadcast, with Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell dismissing claims that his party was involved in negative campaigning.

Responding to claims by Independent Mary Davis that the party was using polling companies to “hone attack messages” against her, Mr Mitchell said: “I know of no such thing... I’ve been the subject of negative campaigning myself, I took it on the chin.”

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness also accused Fine Gael of having an agenda against him: “For some reason the people behind Gay have decided that in order to make him relevant in the campaign, he has to attack me.”

Mr McGuinness strongly hit back when the programme’s host, Vincent Browne, put to him claims that he had been in the IRA up until three or four years ago.

“Some people jump to conclusions,” said an annoyed Mr McGuinness, claiming such accusations were made by people who were “very hostile to Sinn Féin”.

“The media are exercised about this issue, political opponents are exercised about this issue. [But] nobody is exercised on the street about that at all,” he said.

The Sinn Féin candidate called for a “decade of reconciliation”. He said he has risked his life for the peace process and his engagement with the IRA brought about the ceasefire.

After the discussion on the issue descended into a shouting match, Independent candidate Sean Gallagher said he was “disappointed with the level of this debate and the tone of it”. He said the candidates owed it to voters to “raise the level” of the campaign.

Responding to McGuinness, Mr Norris said he knows what it iss like to be a second-class citizen in his own country. “But I never whinged, I never complained.”

He said he “would not indulge in negative campaigning” as it was a “waste of time... second guessing Irish people”.

Labour’s Michael D Higgins attempted to rise above the bickering between other candidates and focused on what the President is allowed to do under the constitution.

Mr Higgins said he would like to see the presidency opened to candidates under the age of 35 in the future.

Dana Rosemary Scallon, who focused on an anti-EU message, said “the presidency has the right to resist any legislation transferring more power to Europe”.

Mr Higgins said he can think of many defects under the Constitution but the fact of the matter was that the President has to abide by the Constitution.

Mr Norris struggled at the end of the programme when asked the source of legal advice against publishing a number of letters of clemency written on behalf of his former partner, Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of statutory rape.

He said he wanted to talk about his record and that the public were not exercised about these letter.

When it was put to him that there was “some howler in the letters” that showed his ambiguity about sex between adult males and minors, he said: “That is quite untrue Vincent and my conscience is clear.”

The candidates ahead of the TV3 debate. Picture: Brian McEvoy

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