SINN FÉIN Presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada stunned viewers and members of her own party last night when she said she would wear a remembrance poppy on Armistice Day.
The first TV debate, hosted by Claire Byrne, saw Ms Ní Riada up against independents Joan Freeman, Gavin Duffy, and Peter Casey.
President Michael D Higgins sat out the debate, as did Seán Gallagher, in protest at the president’s decision.
Ms Byrne asked each candidate if they would wear a red poppy pin honouring fallen members of the British Army on Armistice Day, which coincides with the next president’s inauguration.
The issue is a divisive one for Sinn Féin, due to the violence carried out by British soldiers in Northern Ireland. However, Ms Ní Riada, from Coolea, said it would be an “internal struggle” for her, but that it would be “a sign of maturity” that could help Ireland move towards reunification. If we’re talking about a modern, progressive Ireland that we want to move towards, if we want to reach out to our unionist brothers and sisters, then I don’t see why not.
“It’s not something that I’d be leaping up and down with joy to have to do, but you have to put, maybe, your personal feelings aside for the sake of creating a better platform in order to try and rebuild an Ireland that would be a shared island,” she said.
Ms Freeman and Mr Casey gave similar answers, while Mr Duffy said that he would not wear any symbols as president, but would lay a wreath.
Much of the debate focused on the absence of the president and Mr Gallagher, with candidates on stage invited to address the issue before the debate started. Ms Ní Riada said that their absence showed “contempt” for the Irish people. Ms Freeman said that there is an “air of entitlement” around the two candidates.
Mr Casey said that the president did not show up because he could not “defend the indefensible”, and accused him of having his dog’s grooming covered by the taxpayer. This led to a member of the president’s campaign team contacting RTÉ, with Ms Byrne relaying a message that this was a false accusation.
Mr Duffy cut her off and said: “It’s not your job to be a spokesperson for the president,” and said President Higgins should have turned up to defend himself.
All four candidates said that they would welcome President Donald Trump to Ireland if he was invited by the government. However, each outlined what issues they would raise with him, ranging from immigration policy to sexual violence against women.
Analysis of last night's debate by David Linnane
PRESIDENT Higgins could stay absolutely silent over the remaining 10 days and still win this election in a landslide —but that doesn’t mean he should.
President Michael D Higgins is a renowned orator who has a fairly unique ability, as far as Irish politicians go, to weave words that can convince ordinary people of big ideas without sacrificing any of the depth of his argument.
However, we’re just over a week away from his election and we haven’t seen much of it yet as he chose to sit out the first TV debate of the campaign.
He didn’t provide an excuse for last night either. There were no public events marked on his calendar, and he was in RTÉ studios just a few hours beforehand to do an interview. No TV programme or presenter is entitled to host a debate and no candidate is compelled to attend, but it was a bad look for the President.
The other candidates rightly called him out on it, calling him and Mr Gallagher entitled and contemptuous.
However, at times it felt like this was little more than a debate for second place, with most of the notable moments focused on the candidates who weren’t there rather than the four who were.
According to the most recent poll, the four candidates on stage have just 16% of the vote between them, and it’s unlikely much changed last night.
Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada performed well, with her countering of the poppy question seeming decidedly Presidential.
Throughout the debate, she managed to show a good understanding of the role of President while talking about how she would push its boundaries.
Joan Freeman certainly had something to offer voters, constantly referencing her work promoting mental health as founder of Pieta House.
Gavin Duffy has the X-factor in spades, and seems well prepared to be President — perhaps too prepared. Under questioning, he reamed off facts and dates with little effort but often seemed like he was throwing information out there to prove that he knew it rather to add anything to the debate.
Peter Casey struggled to answer straightforward questions, showed no real grasp of what the President can do beyond vague and confusing aspirations, and seemed deeply cynical and often aloof. However, should his political career fail, he could fall into comedy after some of his juicier lines last night.