Traveller comments dominate Presidential TV debate

Traveller comments dominate Presidential TV debate

Pat Kenny with the presidential election candidates at last night’s TV debate on Virgin Media One. Picture: Kinlan Photography

PRESIDENT Michael D Higgins faced his first major grilling of the Presidential election as all six candidates faced off on TV last night.

However, candidates also rounded on presidential hopeful Peter Casey over controversial comments he made about Travellers yesterday morning, which were branded as “racist.” 

Mr Casey caused a storm when he said he felt sorry for people who had to live beside Traveller camps.

He doubled down on his belief last night that Travellers are not a separate ethnic group, despite being recognised as such last year. 

The other candidates rounded on him, saying that Travellers had specific needs that the state needed to address.

During a tense debate, moderated by Pat Kenny on Virgin One, the five challengers focused much of their fire on the Michael D Higgins over his expenses, his work as President, and his decision to seek a second term.

Mr Higgins said that he could stand over everything spent in the Áras over the past seven years, and said that he will appoint a team of auditors to account for his spending if reelected. He said that all his spending to date has been signed off on by the Comptroller and Auditor General with no issues.

Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada criticised the President for not exercising a power to address a meeting of the Oireachtas about issues like austerity, something she said she would do if elected. President Higgins said that the government must approve the text of such addresses, so he opted to speak to the European Parliament instead, where his speech was not vetted.

He acknowledged that in 2011 he pledged to serve just one term, but said that his experience and connection with people changed his mind.

When asked by Mr Kenny, Ms Ní Riada, Seán Gallagher, Joan Freeman, and Gavin Duffy all said they would serve just one term, while Peter Casey said he would seek nominations from local authorities for a second term.

President Higgins also defended taking the government jet to Belfast on one occasion, as security concerns had been raised and prevented him from driving. He said that Peter Casey, who raised the issues, has a “fantasy list” of accusations against him.

Ms Ní Riada rowed with Mr Kenny when he asked her about an interview in which she refused to condemn IRA violence.

She said that violence should be condemned, but we should be focused on the peace process and not caught up in semantics. Mr Kenny took issue with her talking about terrorism as semantics, to which she replied:

"Would you call Nelson Mandela a terrorist?"

Mr Kenny struggled to answer, before saying he would call him a freedom fighter. The late South African President led an armed resistance against apartheid in the mid-20th century, before being jailed.

All six candidates will meet again on Tuesday on RTÉ Prime Time.

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