Election 2020: RTÉ to invite McDonald to leaders’ TV debate

Debate had been scheduled to take place between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders only

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she was “pleased to accept” the invitation to Tuesday night’s RTE leaders’ debate after the broadcaster reversed its position.

RTÉ on Monday said it would reverse its position and invite Ms McDonald to participate in Tuesday evening's final leaders' TV debate of the general election campaign.

The debate was scheduled to be between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with Sinn Féin's requests for Ms McDonald's inclusion repeatedly rebuffed.

RTÉ had previously said its approach to leaders’ debates was based on empirical data on previous vote shares, but indicated that it was “open to evaluate representations by political parties”.


Sinn Féin and the Labour Party made fresh bids for inclusion on Sunday, and the RTÉ steering committee, which oversees election coverage met on Monday morning to discuss the issue.

Sinn Féin has polled strongly in all opinion polls since the campaign began, reaching joint first place with Fianna Fáil in a Red C poll in the Sunday Business Post.

Sinn Féin director of elections Pearse Doherty on Monday welcomed the decision by RTÉ, confirming Ms McDonald would accept the invitation. “That being said, this should not have come down to a last minute decision on the part of RTÉ.

“Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil wanted this election to be about them, but this election was never about two parties with no real policy differences, who have effectively been in government together for the last four years. Neither of them represent change.

“This election is about the Irish people and our future.....Sinn Féin are the real voice of change in this election,” he said.

Both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin have said they have no difficulty with Ms McDonald being admitted to the debate.

While Ms McDonald has declined to say that she will be a candidate for Taoiseach when the new Dáil meets, her party is not running enough candidates to make her the largest party in a new coalition.

However, the momentum achieved by Sinn Féin in the campaign so far meant that the pressure on RTÉ to reverse its position was intense.

Speaking on the campaign trail in Dublin Mid-West on Monday, Ms McDonald said RTÉ was wrong in its initial decision to exclude her from the televised debate.

“They are the national broadcaster, they have a duty to present an informed, balanced debate,” she said in Clondalkin.

“The idea of having the two men who were in Government together for the last five years debating each other on their shared record is farcical,” she added.

Five other parties

On Monday evening RTÉ confirmed it’s decision to invite the Sinn Féin leader to Tuesday night’s TV debate.

In addition, it said it had also decided to invite the leaders of five other parties to a debate on Prime Time on Thursday night on RTÉ One.

“In reaching its decision, RTÉ had strongly noted the BAI’s rule 27 governing general election coverage which states: ‘Elections are dynamic events and broadcasters should give active consideration to their approach to coverage over the duration of a campaign and amend this approach if they consider it necessary and appropriate so as to ensure fairness, objectivity and impartiality. Broadcasters are encouraged to seek out the widest range of opinions on the issues raised during any given election’,” it said in a statement.

“RTÉ is very mindful it has a duty to the public to reflect events as they unfold. 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. The dynamic has also been consistently reflected in all opinion polls since the campaign commenced.

“We now consider it necessary to amend our original approach, respond to the changes in the campaign, and continue to put the audience first in the making of Tuesday night’s programme,” it added.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times