Three winners and three losers from Monday night's Claire Byrne Live presidential debate
There are less than two weeks to go until polling day and tonight saw the first of what will be four televised presidential debates.
Claire Byrne Live hosted four of the presidential candidates — Senator Joan Freeman, Liadh Ní Riada, Peter Casey and Gavin Duffy — while incumbent president Michael D. Higgins and businessman Sean Gallagher were absent.
With the polls stacked heavily in favour of Higgins, it was a golden opportunity for the other candidates to separate themselves from the pack. But who came out looking good, and who will be disappointed by the night's events?
Winner - Joan Freeman
Joan Freeman was polling well behind Sean Gallagher at the start of the night, but her performance on Claire Byrne Live suggested a solid understanding of the President's role. Her focus on wellbeing, rather than economics, is likely to speak to a lot of people in a country where mental health is a key issue.
She was hyped up by her own rival Peter Casey, and lingered on the subject of her charity work. Similarly, she took the high road when asked if it had been a nasty campaign so far, and alleviated some of the worries around her religious affiliations by advocating for a total separation of church and state.
Her articulation of the financial risks that have affected her as a result of running this campaign also make her look more sympathetic than the "four millionaires" she's running against.
Winner - Gavin Duffy
Gavin Duffy has certainly come out on top of the pile as far as the three Dragons go. The businessman had obviously done his homework and answered every question clearly and concisely.
He broke with the consensus by saying that he would not wear a Remembrance poppy as President, and was quick to name several county councillors whom he would nominate to the Council of State when pressed by Claire Byrne. Other candidates were far less quick.
If nothing else, he also articulated several sound, implementable community and cultural plans that would be within the remit of the president, and said little that would imply he misunderstands the role.
Winner - Claire Byrne
Many on social media have memories of the catastrophe that was the Claire Byrne Live Eighth Amendment debate where mob rule essentially took over. This time around, Byrne had her guests by the scruff of the neck and pinned them all with difficult questions, and let them away with very little weaselling.
When Peter Casey said he wanted women on his Council of State, she said "Name them", when the candidates waffled about the Constitution she asked for specifics. She fact-checked inaccuracies and got all candidates to acknowledge their spending on the campaign. A good night at the office.
She did, however, go too far by reading out a line from a Higgins spokesperson as fact, rather than simply asking Casey to substantiate his claim about Higgins' spending.
Loser - Peter Casey
Peter Casey is polling at just 1%, and it's hard to see his stock rising after Monday night's performance. The businessman, who has spent just a third of his life in Ireland, said that he would nominate seven women to his Council of State — but when he was pressed on specifics, he could only suggest his presidential rival Joan Freeman.
Casey looked genuinely rumbled when Claire Byrne suggested that "Irish presidential candidate" would look very good on his CV when he does business in America, implying that's the reason he's in the race, and his attempts to be jovial and jokey largely fell flat. If tonight was an opportunity for Casey's campaign to gather steam, he blew it.
Loser - Liadh Ní Riada
Sinn Féin MEP Liadh Ní Riada had plenty to say about the ways in which the state is failing the public, but far less to say on how that relates to the presidency. Asked about her favourite part of the Constitution, she selected the contentious Articles 2 and 3 which were changed by the Good Friday Agreement.
Asked who she would appoint to her Council of State, Ní Riada drew a blank.
Worst of all, Ní Riada's unfortunate comment about Freeman's "relationship" with a boyfriend from decades ago who loaned her some money to finance her campaign sounded below the belt and acknowledged as such. The tone and timing of the remark was very unfortunate, and while Ní Riada clarified that it wasn't meant in that way, the damage was done.
Loser - Sean Gallagher
Michael D. Higgins is way out in the polls, is a well-loved incumbent, and had very little to lose by shirking tonight's debate. What Sean Gallagher thought he was achieving by staying home is a mystery. In Duffy's words, "We have Sean Gallagher who thinks he's above this and above you."
If Sean Gallagher wanted to make himself look good, he had over an hour to do it tonight in front of a huge audience. Instead, he decided not to, seemingly for the sake of his own pride. It's hard to imagine that anyone will admire him for it.