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Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin disagree on Sinn Féin inclusion in election TV debates

Sinn Féin has criticised the head-to-head debates between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Mary Lou McDonald speaking at Sinn Fein's general election candidate launch in Dublin.
Mary Lou McDonald speaking at Sinn Fein's general election candidate launch in Dublin.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Updated Jan 21st 2020, 1:45 PM

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said that he would be open to a three-way debate between himself, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Feín’s Mary Lou McDonald. 

Varadkar was responding to calls from Sinn Féin to be included in the televised showdowns on RTE and Virgin Media One.

Buoyed by two strong opinion poll showings in recent days, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald criticised the broadcasters for limiting the debates to head-to-heads between Martin and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Last night, an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll recorded a significant surge in support for Sinn Féin, putting the party on 21% compared to Fianna Fáil at 25% and Fine Gael at 23%. 

Speaking to reporters today on the campaign trail in Fermoy, Varadkar said: “It is actually up to the broadcasters and I understand there may be a court action about it now so I’d prefer not to say more.”

“I don’t have a difficulty debating Micheal Martin head to head and I think it is right that we should do that but equally I would have no difficulty doing a debate involving the three leaders of the three major parties,” he said. 

Fianna Fáil

Responding on a visit to Longford today, Martin said Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were the only two parties that could lead the next government.

“I don’t think we should be deciding these issues on opinion polls,” he said.

“I said last Sunday that there would be an opinion poll this week and it would very much be different to the opinion poll we had at the weekend, and we’ll have other opinion polls that will be different as well.”

“The only two parties that can lead a government in my view are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The only party that can actually lead an alternative government is Fianna Fáil – we’re the only party that can bring about a change of government, with other parties I acknowledge,” he added. 

“And I think it is legitimate that there would be a head-to-head debate between myself and Leo Varadkar in terms of putting an option to the people in terms of the type of governments we would lead.”

McDonald has characterised the decision to confine the debates to the two leaders as undemocratic.

“I don’t believe for a second that people on the ground regard this election as a two-horse race. I think that’s a media construction,” she said today.

“This isn’t even about polling results. This is about having an open and fair debate,” she said.

“It’ll be a bad joke if you have two men who have been in government with each other for four years debating the big issues of the day.”

Responding to Varadkar’s comments, she said: “He is absolutely correct. Just simple fairness. Set aside your own party political views. Simple fairness and the quality of the debate demands we’re not excluded.”

While she reiterated that her party was seeking legal advice about being excluded from the RTÉ debate, McDonald said this wasn’t about picking a fight with broadcasters.  

“The last thing we want to be is on a collision course with any section of the media,” McDonald told reporters. 

She said that she expected that both RTÉ and Virgin Media will reverse their decisions. 

At the launch of his party’s strategy for a united Ireland, Pearse Doherty targeted RTÉ for criticism. 

“They want a head-to-head between Leo and his buddy Micheál. What an insult to the licence payers. So I say to RTÉ – what are you afraid of? This election is not and never was a two-horse race and RTÉ is doing a shameful disservice to the Irish public by trying to frame it that way,” he said.

“This will be nothing but a fake debate between two parties who have effectively been in government over the last four years.”

RTÉ has said other party leaders would face off during a debate on Claire Byrne Live on 27 January.

Virgin Media Television has also argued that coverage is in accordance with BAI guidelines, and was allocated on the basis of party performance in the 2016 general election and the local elections in 2019.

With reporting from Press Association and Christina Finn

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