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Image / Editorial

Here’s what we learned from the first televised 2018 presidential debate


By Jennifer McShane
16th Oct 2018
Here’s what we learned from the first televised 2018 presidential debate

As we know, the 2018 Irish Presidential Election will take place on October 26th. Eleven days until polling day, the first live TV debate of the presidential election campaign included jibes over missing candidates, an audience heckler and a surprising ‘poppy’ statement – here’s a roundup of the main points from the debate. 


Four of the six candidates, Gavin Duffy, Liadh Ní Riada, Joan Freeman and Peter Casey attended the debate, with all four criticising President Michael D Higgins and Sean Gallagher at the beginning of the programme for not attending. All candidates were invited to attend the debate, but it wasn’t compulsory.

Related: Who are our six presidential candidates for election 2018?

Hosted by Claire Byrne, the debate, which was fairly tame, to say the least, went out from Studio 4 of RTÉ before an invited audience of 200 people – who had the chance to submit questions to each of the candidates.

No shows

All four candidates criticised President Higgins and Sean Gallagher for not showing up for the campaign’s first live television debate.

Liadh Ni Riada said she believes the two candidates “think they’re above the Irish people,” a sentiment that was echoed by Joan Freeman, who said that whatever about President Higgins not attending, Mr Gallagher should have made it a priority – last night he said he would not participate in any live debates unless all six candidates took part. “We’re all candidates and we’re all trying to do our best. Michael D Higgins decided not to be here, but Sean Gallagher should be here,” Ms Freeman said.

Peter Casey claimed that Mr Higgins could not defend “the indefensible” and alleged that the incumbent failed to defend questions over spending put to him in during Saturday’s Radio One Live debate. A  spokesperson then got in touch with the show to say that claims about the president’s spending (specifically associated with the president’s dogs) were inaccurate. This led to more flurries of comments about the lack of appearances for two of the six candidates.

Presidential priorities

Questions about the candidates’ presidential priorities, the examination of Áras spending by the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the heads of state they would refuse to meet were among those put to the candidates by the audience members. All candidates said they would agree to meet any unpopular leaders, including Donald Trump. It was all fairly standard; each candidate got a chance to push forward their own intentions for the presidency – including increasing representation of women on the Council of State by Casey, Freeman emphasised her involvement in Pieta House and Duffy promised value for money to the presidency and more energy to the role.

Wearing of a Poppy

One of the more notable segments of the evening (apart from the interruption, which we’ll talk about below) was when the candidates were asked if they would wear a poppy on Armistice Day, which will coincide with the inauguration of the new president. MEP received the first round of applause of the night as she said she would wear the symbol to show how mature Ireland has become as a society, acknowledging that it wouldn’t be approved by all members of her party.

Audience heckler

The debate cut to a sudden commercial break, following a woman in the audience who heckled Mr Casey. What she said wasn’t clear, but Mr Casey apparently knew the woman. It soon emerged that this woman was Bunty (aka Norma Burke), who made headlines for her satirical speech last month at a special meeting of Dublin City Council, in which she said, among other things, setting up hunting lodges in the Phoenix Park and burning “dead people for fossil fuels.”

The general consensus from social media was that Joan Freedman came across particularly eloquently, especially in relation to her comments to the PAC.


The Irish presidential election 2018 will take place on Friday, 26th October, between 7 am and 10 pm at all usual polling stations. To check if you’re eligible to vote, see the electoral register here