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Mary Lou McDonald to appear in RTÉ party leaders' debate

The decision came after a meeting of the RTÉ Election Steering Group.

Sinn Féin had sent a legal letter to RTÉ objecting to Mary Lou McDonald's exclusion.
Sinn Féin had sent a legal letter to RTÉ objecting to Mary Lou McDonald's exclusion.

Updated Feb 3rd 2020, 6:13 PM

RTÉ HAS REVERSED its stance on tomorrow’s Prime Time debate and has announced that Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald will be invited to take part.

The decision was taken today following a meeting of the RTÉ Election Steering Group.

It follows the publication of a number of opinion polls over the course of the campaign, which have shown levels of support for Sinn Féin among voters.

The most recent poll by Red C, published in yesterday’s Business Post, put the party at 24% alongside Fianna Fáil, which was also on 24%, while Fine Gael polled at 21%.

In a statement, the broadcaster said it had “strongly noted” the Broadcast Authority of Ireland’s rules on fairness, objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs in its decision to include McDonald in the debate.

“RTÉ is very mindful it has a duty to the public to reflect events as they unfold,” it said.

“During the course of the campaign and over recent days, RTÉ has taken into consideration the notable change in the dynamic of the campaign on the ground and representation and statements by political parties.

“They dynamic has also been consistently reflected in all opinion polls since the campaign commenced.”

McDonald tweeted this evening that she would accept RTÉ’s invitation.

The broadcaster’s statement also said that the leaders of five other parties will be invited to a debate on Prime Time this Thursday.

Sinn Féin’s director of elections Pearse Doherty welcomed the decision, but said it should not have been a last-minute announcement by RTÉ.

The party had made repeated requests for their party leader to be included in the final televised debate airing days before the electorate go to the polls.

It previously wrote to the broadcaster after consulting with its legal team.

RTE previously said the lineup was based on previous vote shares and decided to exclude the Sinn Fein leader based on its data.

‘Snapshot in time’

Both Varadkar and Martin said they would have no issue with McDonald’s participation following the publication of yesterday’s poll.

The Fine Gael leader acknowledged at the weekend that the election is now a “three-horse race”.

Acknowledging that his party is behind in the opinion polls, the Taoiseach claimed they are only a “snapshot in time”.

Tomorrow’s debate is the second leaders’ debate the national broadcaster has hosted, with Claire Byrne Live last week broadcasting a live debate between seven party leaders.

Virgin Media Television also hosted a head-to-head debate between Varadkar and Martin and a seven-way leaders’ debate

RTÉ announced a number of weeks ago that tomorrow’s Prime Time’s Leader Debate, the last on RTÉ before Saturday’s election, would be between the leaders of the two largest political parties.

RTÉ had said this decision was taken after taking account of “objective and impartial criteria” such as the last general election in 2016 and the 2019 local and European elections. 

In an article published on its website last week, RTÉ said that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had “more than 40 seats” in the previous Dáil, which was “more than twice the number of seats of the nearest party, Sinn Féin”. 

RTÉ had argued that the figure of 40 seats is significant because it “represents half of the number of seats that are needed to form a majority”.

The broadcaster also said that opinion polls “cannot be accorded very significant standing” because they are “based on a very small sample of voter opinion”.

Sinn Féin previously sent a legal letter to RTÉ calling on the national broadcaster to reverse its exclusion of McDonald from tomorrow’s debate.

Both Varadkar and Martin had said that they had no objection to McDonald taking part in tomorrow’s debate. 

With reporting from Stephen McDermott and Press Association.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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