Varadkar and Martin keen on head-to-head election TV debate

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders to meet for discussions on the timing of general election

The leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are set to engage in a head-to-head general election debate, the first time the leaders of the two parties have squared off in 13 years.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin are keen to hold a one-on-one debate during the forthcoming campaign.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin are expected to meet later this week to talk about the timing of the election. They will also discuss an end to the confidence and supply deal, an arrangement that has meant Fianna Fáil underpins the Fine Gael-led minority government.

Mr Varadkar on Monday said he hoped to meet Mr Martin by the end of the week. The Cabinet will hold a special meeting focusing on disability issues in Marino, Dublin, on Thursday. The venue is in the constituency of Finian McGrath, Minister of State for Disability Issues.


Fine Gael Ministers and Ministers of State will hold a meeting on Friday morning, followed by a gathering of the Fine Gael parliamentary party that afternoon.

Mr Varadkar has convened similar meetings previously at the start of Dáil sessions, but party TDs believe increasingly that he may call a February election. Some TDs and candidates were also last night sent templates for election canvass cards.

Mr Varadkar is understood to have told people privately he wants the Stormont institutions back up and running before the election. The ongoing Stormont talks have a deadline of January 13th to succeed or fresh elections will be called in Northern Ireland.

There has been some speculation in Fine Gael that, in the event of a successful conclusion to the Northern talks, Mr Varadkar could meet British prime minister Boris Johnson in Belfast to oversee the restoration of Stormont and that the pair could hold a meeting on Brexit and the future of British-Irish relations.

Such a backdrop, suggest some Fine Gael sources, would provide a platform for him to call an election.

In a letter, Mr Varadkar has asked Mr Martin to vote with the Government rather than abstain if required in some Dáil votes.

Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness has said he will vote against the Government if it faces a motion of no confidence. Mr Varadkar has also asked Mr Martin to agree a reform of the Local Property Tax. The requests are seen as being difficult politically for Mr Martin to agree to, leading many TDs to believe Mr Varadkar is preparing the ground for a February election.

First one-on-one debate since 2007

Mr Martin has already said he wants a head-to-head debate with Mr Varadkar during the campaign. And top Fine Gael figures have confirmed Mr Varadkar wants such an encounter with Mr Martin.

Well-placed Fine Gael figures said they are open to two televised debates: one between all party leaders, such as Sinn Féin, Labour, the Greens and potentially others, and one between the two contenders for the taoiseach's office.

If confirmed, it would be the first direct debate between the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil since Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny squared off on RTÉ television, moderated by broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan, a week before polling day in the 2007 general election. The 2016 and 2011 campaign debates featured a number of leaders.

The desires of both party leaders is dependent on the attitude of broadcasters RTÉ and Virgin Media. An RTÉ spokeswoman said: "The RTÉ Election Steering Committee will make any decisions around debates held on RTÉ. A wide number factors are taken into account and decisions have not yet been made."

A Virgin Media spokeswoman said plans are being drawn up for its general election coverage, with a leaders’ debate a centrepiece of its coverage.