Sinn Fein write to Virgin Media after second debate exclusion

Broadcasters have been criticised after it was announced Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin will go head to head in a second televised debate, in the absence of other parties.

It was announced last week that the two party leaders would face off on state broadcaster RTE on Tuesday February 4.

It emerged on Monday that the two men would also debate on Virgin Media on Wednesday this week, moderated by presenter Pat Kenny.

Sinn Fein have been vocal about their opposition to the move to “exclude” them from the initial RTE debate, with director of elections Pearse Doherty describing the decision as an “utter joke”.

On Monday, Mr Doherty confirmed he had written to Virgin Media objecting to the head-to-head debate.

“As Sinn Fein director of elections, I have written to Virgin Media in relation to their decision to hold a ‘head-to-head’ debate between the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, two parties that received less than 50% support in the last election,” he said.

“I believe that facilitating a debate in the manner proposed is capable of affecting the outcome of the election by presenting the electorate with a false, binary choice between two parties with virtually the same policies.

“BAI (Broadcast Authority of Ireland) rules acknowledge that broadcasters have a statutory obligation to ensure that all news and current affairs programming is fair, objective and impartial.

“How Virgin Media can justify excluding Sinn Fein and the people we represent from this debate is beyond me.

“There is no substantial difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Their policies are much the same and this can be seen over their past four years in government together.

“I am calling on Virgin Media to make public the criteria applied in reaching this decision.

“They should reverse this decision immediately and have a debate that’s actually representative of Irish society.”

Party leader Mary Lou McDonald has taken legal advice on the issue of the RTE debate, bolstered by a Sunday Times poll which ranks her party within the margin of error of being the second largest in the country.

The poll of 923 voters showed Fianna Fail on 32% of the vote, with Fine Gael decreasing by seven points to 20%, just one point ahead of Sinn Fein on 19%.

The margin of error of 3.3%.

The Sinn Fein party themselves found out about Wednesday’s debate on social media. One senior party source said the debate was “ridiculous” and the party had directly asked Virgin Media if they had any other debates planned, to which they allegedly said “nothing at the minute”.

Ms McDonald said: “Our position is the same, obviously RTE is the national broadcaster so there is a slight difference, but the democratic principle remains the same.

“Huge numbers of people will never vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, they just won’t, they vote for other parties, and I think in the interest of a debate that is genuinely is a debate you have to include those voices.

“There is no difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar differ on very, very little, and have been in government together in their confidence-and-supply arrangement for the past four years, so you’re asking the two arms of that government to debate with each other on the decisions they took together and the consequences people are living with.”

Virgin Media has been approached for comment.