The first televised leaders’ debate of the 26-County election will take place on Tuesday night with only two taking part, Fianna Fail’s new leader Micheal Martin and Labour’s Eamon Gilmore.
TV3, Ireland’s only private television channel, had invited the leaders of the three largest parties in the Dail to the debate, omitting Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and the Greens’ John Gormley. However, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny refused, offering up a variety of excuses.
TV3 has said it will leave a seat for Enda Kenny in tomorrow nights debate between party leaders until the last moment, in case Kenny changes his mind about not participating.
Although leading the largest opposition party in the Dail, Kenny lacks charisma and is one of the less popular party leaders. With Fine Gael riding high in the polls, the party have been repeatedly accused of keeping their leader ‘locked up’.
Mr Kenny had previously said he would not turn up for the TV3 debate because it was being chaired by journalist Vincent Browne. The Mayo man claimed his refusal to get involved in a debate hosted by Mr Browne was because of “comments he made in relation to suicide and I feel very strongly about this”.
However, Mr Browne has since offered to step aside, an offer dismissed by Fine Gael.
Kenny then ruled out taking part because his schedule did not allow for it. He also suggested that his seat in the TV3 debate should remain empty on-air as a symbol for all the people who were forced to emigrate from Ireland “by virtue of the incompetence and reckless management” of the economy by Fianna Fail.
Meanwhile, State broadcaster RTE plans to go ahead with a five-way debate on Monday, February 14th. Mr Kenny has agreed to take part in this debate along with the leaders of Fianna Fail, Labour, Sinn Fein and the Greens.
Agreement has still to be reached on a further debate of party leaders on February 22nd, the Tuesday before polling day, on RTE.
The irish language station, TG4 is also planning a debate in Irish on Wednesday, February 16th.
Labour accused Fine Gael of “ducking and dodging” on the issue of the leaders’ debates with the aim of limiting Mr Kenny’s exposure to public and media scrutiny.
Sinn Fein TD Aengus O Snodaigh said the dispute over the leaders’ debates underlined the problems in Irish political discouse.
O Snodaigh said people would find it “sickening” that leading politicians were consumed with the topic rather than serious issues such as thousands of people losing jobs and thousands more being forced to emigrate.
“Too many political leaders are concerned with the political circus,” he said.
“Nobody cares how many people Micheal Martin wants to debate with. Nobody cares what Enda Kenny thinks of Vincent Browne. This is a complete joke.
“There are serious issues that need to be addressed by political leaders and quite frankly the electorate deserves better than to be subjected to this silly squabble. It underlines all that is wrong with Irish politics.
“The election debate needs to turn quickly to real issues that are impacting on peoples’ lives such as unemployment and emigration.
“It recently emerged that a woman found dead in Ballymun last year died of hypothermia because she had no heating, yet we have politicians arguing over who’s doing what debate and when. It’s an insult to people who have already been so badly served by the political elite.
“Sinn Fein supports fully inclusive leaders’ debates. The politics of exclusion is wrong and undemocratic. But politicians need to get on with the real business of trying to provide solutions to real problems.”