European election Midlands-North-West debate: Migration a heated topic, but winning candidates hard to pick

Live debate on RTÉ features Peter Casey, Barry Cowen, Luke Ming Flanagan, Saoirse McHugh, Chris MacManus, Pauline O’Reilly, Peadar Tóibín and Maria Walsh


Key Points


Best reads:


We leave the final word with political editor Pat Leahy.

This is his read on what went down:

Peadar Toibin won’t stay in Europe and won’t say which group he will align with. Peter Casey might stay in Europe, but he might not. And he likes the look of the far-right group in the parliament. Chris McManus isn’t sure which group Sinn Fein will be in. It wasn’t a great start to the big election debate on RTE.

It’s always going to be a struggle to keep an eight-way debate on the straight and narrow, but Katie Hannon managed it most of the time. Not all the time, though.

The politicians who are used to this sort of thing were well-schooled in getting their message across. Ming Flanagan was probably the most effective. Barry Cowen and Maria Walsh were forthright, if a bit too gabby. Walsh stood out in her orange suit. Her route to victory is to be the first Fine Gael candidate; so she knows her biggest rival is her running mate, Nina Carberry. Ditto for Barry Cowen, who has two running mates, Lisa Chambers and Niall Blaney. Both Walsh and Cowen did ok; being there was the most important thing.

Peter Casey ranted about migration, warning about “an absolute tsunami” of immigrants coming into Midlands North West. He stood with his hands on his hips and legs apart for much of the evening, like a gunslinger waiting for action; at times he loitered a little too close to comfort for Saoirse McHugh (“You’re a clown! You’re a clown!” she told him at one stage). Casey disappeared for a while to get his mic fixed but thankfully arrived back in time to pronounce that what was needed in the Middle East was not a two-state solution, but a three-state solution. Sure, why not four?

Casey seems to know as little about anything as he did when he ran for President. That didn’t hold him back then, and it probably won’t now.

Saoirse McHugh didn’t seem sure why she was there at all. Five years ago, she was a fresh voice, a non-politician, a straight talker expressing the frustration of many young people at the political system. Tonight, she seemed a bit frustrated with the whole thing. This was understandable. Toibin laboured manfully to promote the Aontu brand. His chief message, though, seemed about the importance of maintaining national sovereignty. It’s not what people usually go to Brussels for.

Sinn Fein MEP Chris McManus – who was a substitute for TD Matt Carthy – needs to introduce himself to voters. But the party still doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say on immigration, beyond the government is making a mess of things. He struggled. So did the Green candidate Pauline O’Reilly.

It’s hard to pick winners from an eight person line-up. Ming Flanagan should probably be the happiest with the outing. Peter Casey consistently looked the happiest. Though you get the sense that is his customary demeanour.


And that’s the end of the Live coverage of tonight’s debate. Our conclusion is that it was inconclusive.


The parties are all getting their post-debate spake in now, claiming victories for their candidates, or bemoaning the fact that their candidate was not selected among the eight.


And it’s over. Less than an hour and eight candidates. With an ad break in the middle. About seven minutes each all told - really difficult to stand out. Peter Casey was caught out on a tweet he posted in 2023. He also walked off set to get a microphone fixed and strolled back in. He also made a bizarre suggestion that a three-state solution was needed.

The two most assertive candidates were Flanagan and Tóibín. Walsh and Cowen were find but did not really say anything that was memorable. It was similar with McManus and O’Reilly who were able to spell out their party’s stances but did not smash the ball out of the park. Strangely, the most unscripted of them (besides Casey!), McHugh, came across relatively well.

Katie Hannon moved through a huge amount of questions very quickly. You felt at times that it would have been better to delve into some issues a bit deeper. Just when a debate was beginning to fire up, they had to move onto the next issue.


So back live.

Ursula von der Leyen is the star of the show. Maria Walsh confirms she is supporting von der Leyen’s bid to have a second term in Europe.

Debate widens out to Israel. Luke Ming Flanagan being asked about Ukraine and says he favours a ceasefire.

Peter Casey says that solution to Palestine is a three-state solution. Israel, Gaza and West Bank.

Pauline O’Reilly says Ireland is neutral but that does not mean we do not call out wrong and right. She says that Ukraine was invaded and has a right to defend herself.

Chris McManus describes von der Leyen’s leadership as “reprehensible”.

Barry Cowen is asked about the triple lock. “We have to work with Europe to repel the threat of Putin.”

This debate is about everybody agreeing the Russia is a bad actor but disagreement on Europe’s role in responding to that. Half the panel (bigger parties) agree that it does - the opposition does not agree that the triple lock is up for change and is suspicious of Europe.

Peadar Tóibín and Luke Ming Flanagan are the most assertive of the eight candidates. Tóibín mostly attacks Fianna Fáil.

Saoirse McHugh says we should be fully neutral. Asked what would be done if there was an attack on Ireland. She respond by saying that it’s like a meteorite hitting the country. You can’t make a policy on hypotheticals.


Ged Nash is on form tonight!


So the debate has moved on to Agriculture.

But the biggest event so far this evening is that Peter Casey left the podium for a few minutes.

Not in protest we hear but because a microphone was not working!

What a disappointment.

Now he’s back and talking about farming. Only person on the panel who has owned two farms, he informs us.

An inconclusive exchange on the Nature Restoration Laws.

Luke Ming Flanagan discloses that he did not campaign for the retention of the nitrates directive because he represents smaller suckler and beef farmers in the west of Ireland, not the big dairy farms. Fair enougth.

This has been a messy enough section. There was a row between Barry Cowen and Peadar Tóibín, which Cowen asking Tóibín where he got his figures on the number of farmers who were making subsistence incomes from their farms.


So, migration the big opening topic. Peadar Tóibín saying that the system at the moment is not working and the system needs to be tougher. He also says that the Migration Pact will affect Ireland’s sovereignty. Barry Cowen is saying the same thing, talking about immigration policy needing a ‘reset’ and calling for more border patrols.

Hannon moves on to Chris McManus of Sinn Féin asking him about migrants without the necessary documentation being turned back by Gardaí at the border but McManus denies strongly that Sinn Féin’s comments about borders also relate to the border to the North and South.

Maria Walsh is pressed on her full support for the Asylum and Migration Pact. She argues that Ireland cannot do it on its own that it can only do it as part of the EU. She likens what Peadar Tóibín wants with Brexit.

Flanagan is also asked why he oppose the Pact. He contends the number one thing Europe can do is stop selling €162 billion of weapons each year.

It’s the third mention of Ursula von der Leyen!

Flanagan says the Pact is now passed and nothing can be done about it at Europe. He complains that the fact that MEPs get so little airtime on RTÉ means such debates are not aired properly.


Peter Casey said he emigrated three times and entered each country legally. Saoirse McHugh and Luke Ming Flanagan drew attention to the above tweet, which seemed to contradict it. First strike of the evening.


Now we are moving into the tangled issue of migration.

It’s straight in.

Peter Casey is the first to be questioned. He denies he is anti-migrant and says he has emigrated himself three times. He argues that each of the countries he went to had strong immigrant systems and suggested that was not the case in Ireland.

Now, Saoirse McHugh is being asked why she is against the European Migration Pact. She quotes Sally Hayden’s seminal book, The Fourth Time we Drowned, as an argument against implementing it.

Pauline O’Reilly is now being asked about Green MEPs voting against eight of the ten measures in the pact. She answers generally saying she understands people’s concerns but also defends the right of people to seek asylum. She defends the pact as saying it’s the only way to deal with the system properly by the EU working collectively.


Now it’s Barry Cowen. Asked about the internecine warfare between the three Fianna Fáil candidates he is dismissive of the suggestion they are at war with each other. He’s playing safe.

It’s fast moving. Now straight onto Maria Walsh and her comments that the candidates were pale, male, and stale. Was that ageist and sexist? She says her comments were reflective of the European parliament as it stands. Was the MEP in the parliament representative of the entire community, she replies. Bright opening.

Now to embarrassing question for Pauline O’Reilly who is asked how she feels about having an ex-Green like Saoirse McHugh standing against her in the election. She is reminded of Eamon Ryan’s praise of McHugh in 2019 and says she fully agrees with it.

All of the candidates have been adroit so far in taking the question and answering it in a very general way that does not relate hugely to the question.

Now it’s Luke Ming Flanagan. He is asked about his flip-flop this week from Euro-sceptic to Euro non-sceptic. His answer is comprehensive saying he is non sceptic on agriculture. He says that a sign of his maturity to change his mind. He is the second person to mention Ursula von der Leyen, and not in a good way.

Now, it’s Saoirse McHugh who is asked about her negative comments on Europe in 2020, where she basically said standing for Europe was a waste of time.


So it has started. Katie Hannon with a prominent Upfront card in her hand introduces. Like in 2019 the candidates are standing in a straight line. The candidates positioning was selected out of a hat.

Katie Hannon goes straight in and asks Peadar Tóibín if he will stand in the general election if he is elected an MEP.

He is now skirting around the question, stating that he will stand in both elections. He also does not say which grouping he will be in. He points out that there could be new groupings in the next parliament. A confident side swerve by him of the question on double-jobbing. Will he give the seat over to a substitute a few months after his election?

Katie Hannon now asking the same question of Peter Casey who says he will stand in the Presidential election. “At the moment by decision is I will commit totally to Europe,” he says.

She asks is he aligning himself with one of the right-wing groups.

He confirms he will but says he wants Ireland to take back sovereignty from the EU.

Now Chris McManus. He is non committal about a group. “The only thing I am certain about is that it will not be in the same group as Ursula von der Leyen.”


Some of the candidates are Tweeting as they prepare for the Live Debate which will be starting in a minute. But remember only eight of the 27 have been allowed appear. There are other disappointed candidates such as this one.


I’m Harry McGee. Hello and welcome to The Irish Times live coverage of the first of the televised debates for the European Elections on RTÉ.

Tonight it’s the Midland North West constituency, a sprawling constituency of 15 counties. In 2019, there were four seats but now there are five. There are three sitting MEPs contesting the election: Luke Ming Flanagan (Ind), Maria Walsh (Fine Gael), and Chris McManus (Sinn Féin). They will all partake in the debate tonight along with five other candidates.

Katie Hannon is the host. She is a vastly experienced broadcaster who worked as a political correspondent for two decades. It’s her first time anchoring one of these debates and I’m sure she will keep it brisk and lively. There will be no audience. There will be no opening speeches (which can made for dead air from a broadcasting point of view). I’m sure she will keep the eight candidates on her toes.