Leaders Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin set to go head to head in first TV debate

The leaders of the two main parties in the Irish General Election will go head to head in a television debate on Wednesday night.

The first leaders’ debate of the poll will take place between Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has criticised the head-to-head format and has said it is unfair that she is being excluded as the leader of the third largest party.

The figures in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published on Monday put support for Fianna Fail on 25%, Fine Gael on 23% and Sinn Fein on 21%.

Ms McDonald has asked voters who may be unsure of supporting her party to “give us a chance” and has insisted she should be allowed take part in the main televised leaders’ debates during the campaign.

Mr Martin has argued that only Fine Gael or Fianna Fail will potentially lead the next government because of the number of candidates running so her exclusion is justified.

Sinn Fein is standing 42 candidates across 39 constituencies, and would need almost all of them to be elected in order to be the dominant party in a majority coalition government.

The first head-to-head debate between Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin takes place on Virgin Media One on Wednesday night with the second on RTE on Tuesday February 4, some four days before polling day on February 8.

Sinn Fein TD and director of elections Pearse Doherty confirmed he had written to Virgin Media objecting to the head-to-head debate.

Mr Varadkar has said he would have welcomed a three-way debate but said it is ultimately the decision of television producers.

He took a break from campaigning around the country to prepare for the live debate.

His party has suffered a difficult start to their re-election bid with two recent opinion polls showing a drop in support for the party and his own personal rating.

Mr Martin has dismissed polls putting Fianna Fail ahead of Fine Gael and insisted they will fluctuate in the weeks ahead and the gap between the two parties is close.

Wednesday marks day eight of the campaign with pensions, housing and health on the agenda as candidates continue to push for votes.

On the campaign trail on Wednesday morning, Mr Varadkar officially handed in his ballot papers in Dublin while his Fine Gael party colleague Simon Coveney went to Co Tipperary to set out the party’s plans for rural Ireland.

On Wednesday morning, businessman and former presidential candidate Peter Casey submitted his papers to contest the same constituency as Mr Varadkar in Dublin West race.

Mr Casey said wanted to “return the courtesy” for Mr Varadkar telling people not to vote for him in the 2018 presidential election.

Maria Bailey compensation case
Fine Gael politician Maria Bailey will not be standing (Niall Carson/PA)

He has also submitted papers to run in Co Donegal as there is no restriction on a candidate running in multiple constituencies.

Meanwhile, Independent TD Tommy Broughan who was first elected to the Irish parliament in 1992, announced that he is not running for re-election in Dublin Bay North.

Outgoing Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey said she will not be contesting the upcoming election after a decision from her party in November to remove her from the General Election ticket in the constituency.

Ms Bailey had been under scrutiny since her compensation case for falling off a swing at the Dean Hotel in Dublin in 2015 came to light last year.

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