All six Presidential candidates met face-to-face last night for a live televised debate, with Peter Casey's comments on Travellers drawing the liveliest exchanges from the participants.

The debate on Virgin Media, which was moderated by Pat Kenny, was the first on television to feature all six candidates.

Other issues raised by Mr Kenny and audience members included housing, the Presidential salary, and the cost of the election.

Mr Casey was asked by Mr Kenny about his controversial comments about Travellers on a podcast on independent.ie, when he said they were "camping" on other people's land.

"We have so many wonderful nationalities here, it's wrong to single out one particular ethnic group differently," he said.

"One of the county councils who endorsed me was Tipperary, and as you know we have a housing crisis at the moment.

"When I was down there, there was 1.7m spent building six houses that the travelling community wouldn't move into because they wanted sheds and two stables and one acre of land.

"Why should they be given the right to turn down a house? I think that is wrong." He added that people who turn down an offer should go to the bottom of the housing list.

Traveller groups have called on Mr Casey to withdraw from the race and his comments drew criticism from the other candidates, with Liadh Ní Riada calling them unacceptable.

Seán Gallagher called on him to go and meet members of the Travelling community. President Michael D Higgins highlighted that Traveller men have 11 years' less life expectancy than other men.

Joan Freeman said the commentary was "feeding the beast" and it should not be allowed to take over the debate.

Gavin Duffy said it was a special day in the Dáil when the State recognised that the Travelling community was a special ethnic minority.

Courtesy Virgin Media Television

He asked Mr Casey to withdraw the remarks, but Mr Casey said he stood by the comments.

Mr Kenny asked candidates if they would like members of the Travelling community to live next door to them.

Mr Higgins said: "Yes, I have a halting site a couple of hundred yards from my house and they are wonderful people."

Mr Casey interrupted and suggested that Mr Higgins objected to a halting site near his home in 1968. Mr Higgins said that was inaccurate.

"I have never objected to a halting site. I was an elected representative on Galway city and county council and I often took a stand, unpopularly, on the rights of Travelling people to be offered housing," he said.

Mr Casey accused his fellow nominees of lying about their feelings towards Travellers, and said: "It's like giving chocolate to a diabetic, you're not helping them."

Mr Gallagher replied: "That's a racist comment, Peter."

Ms Freeman said the decision of Mr Gallagher and Mr Higgins to not show up to Monday’s debate on Claire Byrne Live was arrogant and offensive.

Mr Gallagher denied this, while Mr Higgins said he undertook to do as much as he could in terms of media, including television, radio and print, but is constrained by his role as President.

"To talk about not turning up, I've been turning up since 1969," he said.

Mr Higgins later called the charges levelled at him by Mr Casey "a fantasy list".

One term or two

Proceedings began with a question asking five candidates whether they would be a one or two-term president.

Ms Freeman, Ms Ní Riada, Mr Duffy and Mr Gallagher all said they would only serve one term.

Mr Casey said he would serve his term and would again go for nominations from county councils for a second term.

Mr Higgins is seeking a second seven-year term at Áras an Uachtaráin. He said he changed his mind after he said he would only run for one term.

"It's very important to know the role, and the extent of the role," he said.

Courtesy Virgin Media Television

The three businessmen admitted they supported water charges. Asked about the housing crisis, Mr Higgins, Mr Gallagher and Mr Duffy admitted they are all landlords.

Mr Casey said: "The president is the influencer-in-chief. You can only influence as president."

Ms Freeman said: "Homelessness has many different levels. We have children, 280% increase in child homelessness, and students trying to get accommodation.

"That is up to the government. It is the president's duty and role to inspire new initiatives to help that."

Mr Gallagher said: "The President can remind the Government that they must work together to address the greatest crisis of our time."

Mr Higgins said: "I have raised the issue of homelessness many times.

"It's an important debate we need to have about the role of the State and the role of the private sector."

Ms Freeman, who voted No in the Repeal the Eighth Amendment referendum, was accused of being out of step with the majority of the public who voted to repeal.

She said: "I don't think the Irish people are as judgmental as you have just been, Pat (Kenny).

"I reflect what Ireland is, this is what makes us democratic, we're able to discuss and debate.

"The reason why [didn’t campaign publicly] is because it was my personal conviction. That has nothing to do with my public duty."

Mr Duffy admitted he used to hunt as he grew up in the countryside, before chastising Mr Kenny.

He said: "I want to say we have to be careful how we're disqualifying people about going into public life.

"To say Joan can't be a president for all people because she voted no in Repeal the Eighth, considering the work she has done, is wrong."

"Thank you, but I don’t need rescuing," Ms Freeman responded.

Ms Ní Riada was asked about her "ambivalence to violence" in regard to past comments about IRA atrocities.

She said: "I think any atrocity like that (Enniskillen bombing) should be condemned, but look, the IRA have been gone the last 20 years, we have a peace process in place, we should be cementing that.

"Would you call Nelson Mandela a terrorist?" she asked Mr Kenny.

Mr Casey announced he would donate his presidential salary to a different charity each month chosen by county councils.

Ms Ní Riada said: "I think the salary should be halved. The president should lead by example."

Mr Gallagher said: "The issue for me is about the expenses, that these expenses have not been audited for four years, if that was any other government department, heads would roll."

Ms Freeman said she would accept the entire salary to funnel it to volunteers as awards from her own pocket.

Mr Higgins said: "I've never accepted the full salary. I took a reduction of 23.6%.

"I don't draw my ministerial pension, I'm perfectly happy to accept any salary that the Government suggest.

"About the €317,000 you ask about, I have no problem appointing an independent audit."

Ms Ní Riada said she would separate her party beliefs from her presidential duties.

"I'm proud to be nominated by Sinn Féin but this is about being a president for everybody and that inclusivity.

"There's no denying it, I'm a Sinn Féin candidate, but I would be a president for everyone."

Ms Freeman said she was the only independent candidate in the race.

"We're not looking at the real thing, to run for this campaign you have to be a millionaire or aligned to a party," she said.

A question was posed by an audience member about the cost of the election.

Courtesy Virgin Media Television

Mr Duffy said: "I would say to people watching, it's bizarre that three of us have come from one TV programme, I apologise.

"I believe there are really big issues facing Ireland, I felt I had something to contribute, and I've put myself forward, that's democracy."

Ms Ní Riada acknowledged that without Sinn Féin there may not have been an election.

"It is about upholding democracy, this is about the future. There was no question about it, Sinn Féin would always field a candidate."

Mr Higgins said: "Democracy is important. I believe I have the experience and the authenticity of values I have represented all my life."

Two more debates are scheduled for next week on RTÉ’s Prime Time and the Tonight Show on Virgin Media.

The vote will be held on Friday 26 October.