A lot of noise and long way to go to polling day

Loans, vaccines, a border poll, and the presidential salary were some of the opening topics juggled by candidates during a cautious but fast-paced opening debate in the race for Áras an Uachtaráin.

A lot of noise and long way to go to polling day

Loans, vaccines, a border poll, and the presidential salary were some of the opening topics juggled by candidates during a cautious but fast-paced opening debate in the race for Áras an Uachtaráin.

While not trading lethal blows, four of the candidates laid down markers for the long days of campaigning ahead, even as the main star of the race stayed out of the ring for the opening round.

The RTÉ radio debate showed us that this contest, like presidential races before, will indeed be tough, personal, unpredictable, and colourful at times.

Most noticeable during the News at One debate hosted by Áine Lawlor was the absence of the presidential incumbent, Michael D Higgins.

In the morning, he was met with cheers and applause from crowds of students at DCU, focusing his speech on youth and his college memories.

All away from the heat of a radio debate and media questions.

It was clever, campaigning while not campaigning. We can expect more of that.

While wearing his presidential hat (which he must), Mr Higgins can in essence send out messages on topics of his choosing on a daily basis.

But of course that is what a president must do... while still seeking a second seven-year term in the Park.

Later, in RTÉ’s Montrose studios, it was the turn of four challengers to face other, more uncomfortable topics.

Senator Joan Freeman revealed she has borrowed €120,000 from Des Walsh, a businessman and friend based in Los Angeles.

It later emerged that Ms Freeman’s lender was, until recently, the president of Herbalife, a major nutritional company.

Mr Walsh has denied claims the firm is in some way a pyramid scheme.

Tipperary entrepreneur Michael Madden had also loaned her €10,000, said Ms Freeman.

The Pieta House founder said the loans complied with race rules. Expect some more questions about these loans in the coming days.

Ms Freeman also insisted she represents the “ordinary” voter in the contest, as she lives in a semi-detached home, has a mortgage, and drives an ordinary car.

In contrast, the two Dragons’ Den stars in the radio debate took shots at each other over what they would do with a presidential salary.

Meath businessman Gavin Duffy said the president’s salary should remain the same because otherwise only “wealthy people”, such as fellow businessman and rival Peter Casey, could afford to run.

“I don’t think it should be an exclusive club,” quipped Mr Duffy.

Mr Casey fired back, saying that the high salary of the office should not be to “keep Gavin” in the “lifestyle he is used to”.

It wasn’t gripping stuff. But at least the two Dragons tried for the listeners.

Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada also faced tough questions yesterday about her opinion of the HPV vaccine.

In 2016 the MEP said she would not allow her daughter to receive the HPV vaccine.

Yesterday she denied she had written to her daughter’s school in Cork on the issue.

She said she was fully in favour of vaccines, having “seen cancer close up”, and said it was unfair that the media would seek information about her children’s medical records.

The Cork woman also said the president could lead discourse around a border poll and lay the groundwork for a conversation around unification.

Ms Freeman said a government should be the ones to lead debate on such a matter.

All candidates had differing opinions on how they would welcome US president Donald Trump if he visited Ireland.

Mr Casey said he would meet him while declaring that Mr Trump was a “serial womaniser and abuser”.

On the face of it, the radio debate finished with no winners or losers.

Rather, it gave us an insight into how this will be a colourful campaign, with many turns still to come.

And when all six candidates finally do sit down in the same room together, we may see the real shape of this race and whether it will be a clean fight.

Mr Casey left listeners in no doubt that he thought it was “disgraceful” that Mr Higgins had failed to join the debate while he also asked why businessman Sean Gallagher did not.

The latter says he won’t join any debate unless it involves all candidates.

There is still a long road until voting day on October 26.

And while there was a lot of noise in a cramped studio yesterday on the first full day of campaigning in the race, candidates can expect a lot more to come in the contest to be the nation’s first citizen.

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