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Michael D Higgins vows more transparency in expenses during campaign debate

UK News | Published:

The first debate involving all six Irish presidential candidates took place on Saturday.

Irish presidential race

The first debate involving all six Irish presidential candidates has taken place.

The event, broadcast live on RTE Radio 1, saw the six candidates including current President Michael D Higgins debate transparency in the office of president, the upcoming 1918 centenary celebrations, and hypothetically dissolving the Irish parliament.

Mr Higgins came under scrutiny for his last seven years in office and over his expenses, which one candidate claimed were “shrouded in secrecy”.

The president admitted transparency in his expenditure could be improved, saying: “I think it can be made better, if I’m re-elected it would be useful for an annual report to be made.

“I think basic costs are up on the website, but it would be better to present them in a more accessible way.”

Peter Casey, another candidate, at one point interjected, asking the president: “What do you spend your money on? 250,000 euro (£220,000) a year, your nice suits are paid for, even your dog grooming is paid for.”

Discussing transparency, presenter Cormac O hEadhra asked if each candidate would be willing to publish their tax returns.

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“This is extremely important for the public, can we have some kind of agreement that you will publish income and taxation by next week?” he asked.

The group seemed to be in agreement before Gavin Duffy announced: “I’m tax compliant but that’s private, we’re talking about public expenditure.”

Mr Duffy went on to criticise fellow candidates Sean Gallagher and Liadh Ni Riada for calling for a border poll for Irish unity.

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The debate moved on to the experience of the group, which includes three businessmen – Mr Casey, Mr Duffy and Mr Gallagher.

All three claimed they have divested and stepped back from roles in their companies during the campaign.

Mr Casey, who repeatedly claimed he has only two businesses, later revealed he has shares in a business in Kerry, which he said he had forgotten about.

During a question on whether they would pass a law banning evictions if they were president, Senator Joan Freeman replied: “I would not be qualified enough to answer that question right now.”

At one point during the debate, Mr Higgins did not comment for more than 12 minutes as fellow candidates spoke over one another.

Ms Ni Riada, the Sinn Fein MEP, repeatedly questioned 2011 presidential runner-up Mr Gallagher on what he has been doing for the last seven years as the businessman has been largely absent from public life despite two major referendums in the state.

“Where have you been for the last seven years? Where have you been in rallies for oppressed people? You haven’t addressed that, those very communities you claim to represent,” she said.

Mr Gallagher said he had been working hard investing and supporting SMEs.

When the debate turned to the question of experience and youth in the presidency, Mr Casey claimed Mr Higgins has been cutting down on presidential duties.

“We’ll be lucky in a few years if he even does a walk around the park,” he said. “It’s not his fault he’s 77.”

Mr Gallagher injected, telling Mr Casey he was being disrespectful.

That was the second time in the debate he came to the aid of another candidate, after urging the group to stop scrutinising Ms Freeman’s finances.

When asked what they wanted their lasting legacy to be should they become president, Mr Casey talked about utilising the Irish diaspora abroad, at one point referencing the Jewish community.

“The Jews had Facebook before it was invented,” he remarked.

Mr Duffy said he would create an assembly of citizens to work out what type of society Ireland needs to form.

Ms Freeman said that over the last seven years the country has been focused on finance, and it is time to bring it back to people and social issues.

Mr Gallagher said his focus would be education for young people and jobs for communities.

Mr Higgins said: “I’d like to be remembered for offering understanding, offered ideas and life experience and welcoming people to the Aras.”

Ms Ni Riada said a shared Ireland respecting identity and Irish unity.

Only three of the candidates will appear in a further debate on RTE’s Claire Byrne live on Monday.

Mr Higgins has state duties, and Mr Gallagher and Mr Casey have both said they will not take part if all six candidates are not present.

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