THE MAIN political parties have all rejected RTÉ proposals for new structures on televised debates in the next general election.
A letter from the station’s current affairs editor for television, Ken O’Shea, proposes: a debate between the leaders of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour at the start of the campaign; a debate between the leaders of Labour, the Green Party and Sinn Féin “in the middle of the campaign” and a final debate between the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael shortly before polling day.
Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens and Sinn Féin all spoke out at the weekend against the proposals in the letter, which was sent to them just over a week ago.
Commenting on the proposals, a spokesman for Fianna Fáil said yesterday: “It is a bit premature at this stage considering there are two more years to run and such matters are rarely discussed until an election is close.
“Our view is that the existing format between possible taoisigh has worked well and the measure of that is the numbers of people last time who watched the debate.
“When the election is under way, these matters will come up for discussion with RTÉ and any other broadcasters seeking to host such debates.”
A Fine Gael spokesman said: “The existing arrangement, where the outgoing Taoiseach and leader of the Opposition engage in a policy debate, is the way to go.
“If you move from that, the focus shifts to the debate process rather than a discussion on the relevant issues, which are jobs, health and political reform.”
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said his party had immediately replied to inform RTÉ that the proposal was not acceptable.
Rejecting the concept that Labour would participate in a debate with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders at the start, but not at the end of the campaign, he said: “That’s like giving us a run-out in the first round of the championship and telling us we can’t play in the final.”
Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment John Gormley said the proposals were “incredible and totally unacceptable”. He called for a five-party debate that would include the Greens and Sinn Féin.
A Sinn Féin spokesman also rejected the plan: “This is completely unacceptable. It clearly benefits the larger parties because Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour get two bites of the cherry. If there is going to be multi-party debates, they should be all-party debates.”
In the RTÉ letter, Mr O’Shea writes: “Various interested parties have contacted RTÉ in recent days inquiring about our plans for televised political debates in advance of the next general election.
“In light of this and recent events in the UK election, it might be helpful to outline our intentions at this point.”
Mr Gormley said: “The timing of RTÉ’s letter is strange because we are two years out from an election. The letter came one week after Eamon Gilmore made his demand at his party’s Galway conference. They seem to have capitulated almost immediately to the Labour Party demand, which we find incredible and totally unacceptable.”
Mr Gilmore said yesterday: “Every day in the Dáil there is a three-way exchange and that needs to be reflected in the pre-election debates.”
Commenting on a Sunday Business Postpoll showing Labour had support of 24 per cent with Fianna Fáil in third place, he added: "We are certainly seeing the emergence of a very genuine three-way contest."
The Red C poll figures were: Fine Gael 33 per cent (-2); Labour 24 per cent (+7); Fianna Fáil 23 per cent (-1); Independents 8 per cent (-1); Greens 6 per cent (+1) and Sinn Féin 6 per cent (-4).