Thursday 18 July 2019

Michael D still on course for victory after fractious radio debate

First showdown between all six candidates for the presidency ultimately delivered more heat than light

PRESIDENTIAL: Michael D Higgins with Niamh Horan. Photo: David Conachy
PRESIDENTIAL: Michael D Higgins with Niamh Horan. Photo: David Conachy

Eilis O'Hanlon

RTE gave it a build-up usually reserved for big sporting clashes such as Conor McGregor's recent UFC showdown in Las Vegas. In the event, the first live presidential debate between all six candidates on Radio One's Saturday With Cormac O hEadhra wasn't quite as belligerent as that now notorious clash, but at times it did threaten to go that way.

Proceedings had barely got under way before the other contenders were piling in to Michael D Higgins over his salary; his use of the Government Learjet to make short hops up to Belfast; the expenses of the Office of the President, including €3,000- a-night hotels.

On TV, this could have easily looked like the big sporty boys in the playground ganging up on the weedy, bookish kid.

In reality, of course, Michael D is more like the headmaster, and should have been better prepared to be put on the spot.

He didn't come across as match fit at all, floundering frequently and taking refuge, as is his wont, in pretty-sounding waffle.

"The appropriate way to do this is a way that is appropriate," he even said. Well, you can't argue with that.

O hEadhra lost control of the debate at times, but there were six people in the studio, and only an hour to deal with the issues each of their candidacies has raised. It was impossible to satisfy everyone, but he did have one slyly killer question to the President: "When did you realise that value for money could be better?" Ouch.

The only other time Higgins sounded that uncomfortable was when admitting that he might now, with the benefit of hindsight, "reword" his statement hailing Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro on his death as a "giant amongst political leaders".

He didn't need to win, though. He has the advantage of being in pole position.

It was his rivals who needed to make a splash.

Most of the running was done by Donegal businessman Peter Casey, who came across like an excitable Jack Russell, nipping at the President's heels whenever he got the chance.

During the discussion on presidential expenses, Casey went so far as to complain: "Even your dog grooming bills are covered."

There's a man who doesn't have his finger on the sentimental pulse of the dog-loving Irish. Bringing up the President's age was a low blow too.

Casey's fellow Dragon's Den cohorts struggled to be heard as loudly. It was easy to forget that Gavin Duffy was there at all, whilst Sean Gallagher, who came within a whisker of winning in 2011 until RTE and Sinn Fein together banjaxed his campaign at the last moment on false, indeed faked, pretences, sounded lacklustre, as if already resigned to defeat.

If anyone needs the fillip that an appearance on Claire Byrne Live on RTE TV tomorrow would bring, it's Gallagher, but he still insists he won't be there. Nor will Michael D.

It's going to be like Hamlet without the Prince. Or the King. Sinn Fein's Liadh Ni Riada will no doubt seize the opportunity to present herself as the big fish in the small pond of candidates. Yesterday she oscillated between a desire to come across as a serious heavyweight, and wanting to play the radical challenger to the "cosy consensus".

She was less specific about what she could do in office.

"For me, it's about Irish unity," was how she began her final pitch. Er, no, it isn't.

She also declared that Palestine would be "one of the first countries I'd visit", momentarily forgetting that she wouldn't be allowed to leave the country without the approval of the Government.

The final candidate was independent Joan Freeman, founder of Pieta House, as she pointed out practically every time she spoke - and to be fair, if you've got a unique selling point flaunt it.

She seemed confused about the constitutional role of the President, but does it matter? It's about electing a head of state, not a professor of jurisprudence. That's why the President has a Council of State, to guide them through the legal maze.

The President's job is to waft around the world, waving and giving speeches.

This first debate between all six candidates most likely won't have inspired enough people to switch horses.

A discussion about their values and characters would have been more insightful, instead of this fractious descent into the politically charged nitty-gritty.

Michael D remains on course to return to the Aras on a metaphorical Learjet of apathy and sycophancy. Ni Riada's champion work in taking out the other candidates will serve only to make his victory more convincing.

It's 2011 all over again.

Sunday Independent

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