Candidate condemns Castro trip, won't take 'bonkers' pay, writes Kevin Doyle
A new entrant to the presidential campaign has claimed Michael D Higgins "kept the seat warm" over the past seven years while being paid vast amounts of money.
Millionaire Peter Casey has launched the first direct attack on the incumbent, criticising him for "extolling the virtues" of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
The former 'Dragons' Den' investor will today write to councillors asking for a nomination. Confirming his bid to the Irish Independent, Mr Casey promised not to accept any of the €1.7m salary which the president will be entitled to between 2018 and 2025.
He described the salary as "bonkers". "It's almost the same as the US president. It's much more than the Taoiseach, who does the heavy lifting. It's just wrong. I wouldn't take any," he said.
Mr Higgins is entitled to a salary of €325,000 but has handed 23pc of this back to the State each year, bringing his annual income down to €249,000.
Mr Casey also revealed:
He believes Brexit will be "a huge big yawn" like Y2K;
Abortion should not be used "as a method of birth control";
And he's "not a big fan" of Donald Trump.
The father of five adult children accepts he is best-known for his stint on reality TV - but would "hate to think that you are eliminated from standing for office just because you were on a TV show". He is the third Dragon to challenge Mr Higgins, following Seán Gallagher and Gavin Duffy.
The Derry native, who founded recruitment firm Claddagh Resources, lives in Atlanta. However, he recently signed over his company interest to his son and sold his American home ahead of a permanent move back to Ireland.
His campaign will be largely based around trying to harness the strength of Ireland's diaspora.
He wants to replicate the 'Birthright Israel' programme, which allows the children of ex-pats to travel to Israel on sponsored heritage trips.
If elected, he also wants to help make Ireland a centre-point for the MOOC (Massive open online course) education programme, which is largely internet based.
"We can get the Irish abroad to come over and spend part of their degree in Ireland and get credit for it in whatever country they are coming from. MOOCs is going to do to education what iTunes did to music. It's revolutionary," he said.
Finally, Mr Casey wants to connect millions of the Irish diaspora on an internet platform.
"We have the technology now. Zuckerberg could arrange it for us in three or four months," he said.
Asked why he believes he would do a better job than Mr Higgins, he replied: "He certainly hasn't embarrassed the presidency. He's kept the seat warm but there is so much opportunity for connecting the Irish. The President is the president of all Irish people, not just those living in Ireland."
He added: "I wouldn't have supported him going to Cuba and supporting Fidel Castro… or extolling the virtues of Hugo Chavez. I'd like to hear his answers as what justified using taxpayers' money to go to these countries," he said.
Mr Higgins issued largely positive statements after the deaths of both leaders, causing particular controversy when he described Castro as a "giant among global leaders".
During the interview, Mr Casey repeatedly noted that he knows the limitations of the office of president - but said he would be willing to give personal views as he tours council chambers seeking a nomination.
However, he declines to estimate his financial worth, except to say: "I'm able to fund my own campaign and my own lifestyle without being a burden on the Irish taxpayer."
On Brexit he predicted it will "end up like Y2K", otherwise known as the Millennium bug, that failed to have the expected impact on computers worldwide in the year 2000.
"It's like the crisis you have when you're not having a crisis. Germany has a 16pc trade surplus with the UK so they are not going to do anything that will mess that up," the businessman said.
"I think they've run out of time already, so what they'll do is vote to give the UK an extension.
"They'll extend it probably for two years. In the meantime there'll be a new government elected in the UK and they'll go back and ask for a vote on it.
"This time they'll vote to stay in. That's what I'd bet on," Mr Casey said, adding: "I think it'll be a huge big yawn. We'll think 'Why were we all so excited about Brexit'."
Asked about the recent abortion referendum, he said he's "absolutely 100pc opposed to abortion as a means of birth control", but would sign the legislation being proposed by the Government into law.
"I'm opposed to it, but where the mother's life is in danger or cases of rape and incest I would be in favour of it," he said.