The first live television debate of the Presidential Election campaign has taken place on RTÉ's Claire Byrne Live.

Four of the candidates, Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman and Liadh Ní Riada, took part, but President Michael D Higgins and Seán Gallagher declined an invitation to participate.

The four participants faced audience questions on several issues, including the Constitution, presidential expenses, priorities for the job, meeting world leaders, and wearing the poppy to commemorate those who died in wars.

The date of the Presidential Inauguration clashes with the events to mark the end of World War I and the candidates were asked if they would wear the poppy on Armistice Day on 11 November.

Ms Ní Riada said it would be an internal struggle to wear the poppy, but the Sinn Féin MEP said she would wear it for "the greater good" and if it would contribute towards healing.

"I think we're mature enough. Certainly I would look forward to honouring and commemorating Armistice Day.

"I think it is a sign of maturity that if you wear a symbol, such as the poppy, that you are saying we have come this far in extending the hand of peace and friendship, and so, yes, I would if it came to that.

"You know if it's going to be healing process, if we're talking about a modern progressive Ireland that we want to move towards, if we want to reach out to our unionist brothers and sisters … then I don't see why not."

Mr Casey said his grandfather fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and he would wear the poppy out of respect for the millions of people who died.

Mr Duffy said he would not wear a poppy, saying the president should not wear any symbols at any time, but a gesture could be made by laying a wreath.

Ms Freeman said wearing the poppy was a symbolic gesture to reach out to people.

The decision by the Public Accounts Committee to look at expenditure from the Office of the President in the run-up to the election drew criticism in political circles last month.

In response to a question on the subject in tonight’s debate, Mr Duffy said it was right for the PAC to look at the presidential finances.

Ms Freeman said as there were multiple millionaires now running as candidates, Ireland was facing a time where the ordinary person could not put themselves forward for president.

Mr Casey said he was sceptical on the issue, saying that he did not think it was right to examine presidential costs just weeks before the election.

He said an examination of costs should be ongoing and the president should publish them.

Ms Ní Riada said the timing was questionable, but absolute transparency and accountability was needed when it came to finances.


As it happened: Presidential debate
Watch the debate here


Absence of two candidates

Addressing the absence of two candidates, Ms Ní Riada said their absence was a real "sign of contempt".

Ms Freeman said there was "an air of entitlement" with their decision not to take part.

Mr Duffy said Mr Gallagher and Mr Higgins should be at the debate, while Mr Casey said it was hard to defend the indefensible, regarding the absence of the other two candidates.

Each candidate was given the opportunity to set their priorities for the presidency should they win the election.

Mr Duffy said he wanted to lead a nationwide campaign to tackle childhood obesity.

Mr Casey said Ireland’s most under-utilised asset was the millions of Irish people living abroad and he wanted to create a platform for the Irish abroad to connect with the Irish at home.

Ms Freeman said she wanted to turn a focus on wellness during her presidency, saying Ireland had to turn the lens from the economy back onto the people.

Ms Ní Riada said she wanted the presidency to be a voice for the ordinary people and for the marginalised and one of her priorities was about having an Ireland of equals.

Meeting world leaders

The four candidates were also asked if there were any world leaders that they would not meet while in office.

Ms Freeman said Ireland had spent decades creating a wonderful relationship with the US and it would be a shame to destroy that relationship because of a president like Donald Trump. She said she would welcome Mr Trump to Ireland if she was president.

Mr Casey said Mr Trump was an international embarrassment, while Ms Ní Riada said there was no world leader that she would not meet.

Mr Duffy said Ireland was a unique country that had good relations with everybody, adding that it was not about who was holding the office, but the office itself.

The candidates were also asked about their favourite part of the Constitution.

Mr Duffy said he had concerns about parts of it, adding certain phrases in it were anachronistic and that it is amended every few years at a cost.

Ms Freeman said she did not have a particular favourite part of the Constitution, but agreed with Mr Duffy that some parts of it were old-fashioned.

Ms Ní Riada said she would look at safeguarding Irish neutrality, to which Mr Casey said Ireland was not neutral, but rather that it was non-militarily aligned.

The debate finished with each candidate giving a brief statement on why the public should vote for them.

Mr Casey said if we can truly connect the Irish abroad with the Irish in Ireland we can make Ireland much more influential player on the world stage.

Ms Ní Riada said she would be a strong and outspoken president and would work toward a united Ireland.

In his final statement, Mr Duffy thanked the candidates who turned up for the debate and he appealed to Mr Higgins and Mr Gallagher to contest future debates.

Ms Freeman said Ireland was facing years of uncertainty and the country needed a president who could build a confident and resilient society capable of facing those uncertainties.

The debate was briefly adjourned at one point after an audience member interrupted Mr Casey as he responded to a question on the expenses of the Office of the President.

In a statement, RTÉ said: "Audience selection was founded on open applications from members of the public.

"The audience was selected by an external company to be representative both geographically, politically and demographically of the electorate.

"We regret a member of the audience decided to interrupt the candidates. They were removed from the studio and the live broadcast continued."