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Michael D gets a kick up arts for name dropping

Four of the candidates turned up to talk through their arts, but Martin McGuinness sent his regrets. He had a prior engagement apparently. (He was probably writing out "I must not call anyone 'West Brits'" one hundred times).

Which was a shame, as this gathering was the first time that the confirmed runners in the Aras race had come together in a debate, and it was a chance to have a bit of a preview of who may or may not shine in the televised presidential debates.

Also, instead of plunging straight into the fray on a thorny topic such as the economy, the subject up for argument at the Irish Film Institute yesterday was the role of the arts in Ireland -- a topic which while interesting, was unlikely to see skin and hair flying around the auditorium.

But first the quartet -- Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, Michael D Higgins and Gay Mitchell -- had to run the gauntlet of photographers and reporters. There was the obligatory surreal photo-op (this time involving two astronauts and a furry white mouse), followed by a brief grilling from reporters.

Inevitably, given the cliffhanging kerfuffle over whether David Norris and Dana will make it on to the ballot-paper, the candidates were quizzed in turn on whether the county councils should be given free rein to vote the pair into the contest.

And it was clear that the four of them are growing weary of this endless saga. Sean was the most relaxed on the subject, having staked out the high moral ground on this issue early on.

"I have freed up five of the councils who had nominations and motions down for me, and I'm happy that they're now back in play to allow Dana and David Norris in," he explained.

Michael D wasn't enthusiastic about discussing it either.

"I have done nothing but encourage candidates to go into the field but I have no control over this, and I'm really very anxious that it would be all decided soon," he said.

But Mary Davis and Gay Mitchell were a bit cranky on the council question -- both were of the view that they had to do the hard yards to secure their places on the ballot and didn't see why David and Dana should waltz in at the last minute.

"Look, I've worked incredibly hard over the last couple of months, contacting the councils, going around meeting them. I've worked for three months on this, and at the end of the day it's up to the councils and the councillors to decide who they're going to vote for," countered Mary.

"I had to go up and down the country competing, and since I've been selected, all I've had to read about are other people complaining about how they didn't get on the ticket," grumbled Gay.

Given that this was the first head-to-head debate, only a modest crowd turned up in the auditorium for the event which was chaired by broadcaster Olivia O'Leary.

Gay and Michael D in particular vied with each other to stress their contributions to the arts in Ireland; Gay reminded the audience that as Lord Mayor of Dublin he had set up the IMPAC book award, which is the world's richest art gong for a single work.

But former arts minister Michael D was in his element, throwing about famous names like snuff at a wake, such as recounting how he opened up the National Gallery one night to allow the Rolling Stones a private viewing, but when he mentioned how he had been chatting one day to violinist Yehudi Menuhin (as you do), an amused Olivia chided him, "Michael D, you're such a name-dropper", but he was unabashed.

It was clear that the two seasoned politicians were more used to the joust of debate than the two Independents, Mary and Sean. But there were still nuggets of information to be gleaned on how they would support the arts if they made it into the Aras.

Mary wants to call Aras an Uachtarain by a different name -- "I prefer to call it Teach na Dhaoine," she explained, while Sean thought the Aras should be used more for exhibitions by Irish artists.

But the audience also learned a little about the candidates' taste in the arts -- Mary's favourite author is Sebastian Barry, while Sean's favourite artwork was a painting by a Cistercian monk given to him by the artist. Gay's favourite piece of music is Sean O Riada's 'Mise Eire', while Michael D loves Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ' and also the music of Johnny Cash -- "the later years", he stressed.

But apart from a little wrangling over the role of philanthropic donations in sustaining the arts, it was all quite civilised. And no one accused anyone of not knowing their arts from their elbow.

Irish Independent