Head-to-head debates between Varadkar and Martin are an unfair waste of time
With a little more than two weeks to go until election day, Sinn Féin are at odds with both of Ireland's major television stations after being excluded from their "head-to-head" debates.
After RTÉ announced its plans for a debate between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, Pearse Doherty sprung into action and wrote a very strongly-worded letter, noting: "They want to carve up this election by excluding Sinn Féin."
Just as Postman Pearse delivered his letter to the state broadcaster, the Virgin dogs started chasing him up the street.
"We're going to have a head-to-head debate too!" they barked. Doherty legged it back to Sinn Féin HQ and immediately composed a second letter. With a day and a half left until the first of these debates, it seems as though nobody is prepared to hear him out.
Neither station has deigned to officially publish the criteria it used to design these debates. If there were some kind of candidate threshold to be cleared, this should have been made clear to all parties beforehand. After all, Sinn Féin is running just five fewer candidates than Fine Gael's incumbent 47, which has been enough to maintain Varadkar's premiership.
Speaking on Twitter, Virgin's Matt Cooper seemed to unofficially confirm this criteria: "Realistically, what [sic] you want it or not, like it or not, one of the two of them will be the next Taoiseach. That justifies it."
These productions are being decried by many as a farce. Thanks to the confidence and supply agreement, the outgoing Fine Gael government has only existed thanks to four years of support from Fianna Fáil. A very simple fact. To many, Varadkar and Martin represent Kang and Kodos, only without the Bill Clinton and Bob Dole disguises.
To even call the debate a "head-to-head" is disingenuous, when the two parties have been acting as one two-headed creature for the last four years. Nobody is denying that the two heads hate each other, but they've been on the same body.
Recent polls have enflamed this state of affairs even further. Both of the latest opinion polls show Sinn Féin polling within 1% and 2% of Fine Gael — within the margin of error of both polls. This confirmed that the decision to exclude leader Mary Lou McDonald is based on something besides actual electoral popularity.
On the face of it, it seems as though there is some sense to the idea. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are running 82 candidates each. Even if every Sinn Féin candidate makes their way into the 33rd Dáil, it's unlikely to the point of impossibility that they'd be able to form a government of any kind with the remnants of the other vaguely left-wing parties that are on offer.
Of course, much of Sinn Féin's electoral woes spring from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's explicit refusal to work with them. This is a policy choice, and should not be taken for granted by broadcasters as an immovable state of affairs.
‘They’re neck and neck in the polls, so it doesn’t seem fair to have a situation where the most watched debate will be purely for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.'
On this week's State of Us, @TVsCarlKinsella argued that Sinn Fein had to be part of the main TV debates#GE2020 pic.twitter.com/fZF72dIRac
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) January 20, 2020
The move also bucks what small precedent there is. Back in 2011, when Labour had toppled Fianna Fáil in the polls, and would soon overtake them in terms of seats, the party was rightly invited to RTÉ's "head-to-head-to-head" debate. But so were Fianna Fáil, who were on course for the rout of a lifetime.
But the exclusion of other parties isn't the only reason to rue the upcoming head-butting contests. Even if Mary-Lou McDonald were in the mix, this system still wouldn't be the answer.
Phrasings like "head-to-head" suggest a combative showdown, the kind of thing that people want to tune into. Is it a ratings-grab? No, they wouldn't do that to us, would they? Treat us like children who will only tune in to informational broadcasting if it's styled like the WWE? Surely they think more highly of us than that?
"In the blue shirt, a man whose government has overseen record levels of overcrowding, record levels of homelessness and rampant rising rents, it's Leo 'The Evictor' Varaaaadkar.
"Aaaaand in the same corner, the man whose party has facilitated literally every measure taken by Varadkar, and who has refused to land a blow on him for the last four years, it's Micheál 'The Pacifist' Martin!"
LET'S GET REEEEADY TO RUUUUMBLE!
We would all learn much more if each party leader sat down to take questions a tough inquisitor (or Pat Kenny, if a tough inquisitor can't be found) and the public in a town hall-style special. Sure, that would require us actually watching the interviews, but excuse me for believing we might do that.
But as for Americanised debates? The cross-talk, the petty point-scoring, running down the clock and shoehorning soundbites into your 60-second closing speech. None of that helps anyone.
But in Ireland's parliamentary system, these head-to-heads won't just be unhelpful, they will actively damage the democratic process at the whim of studio executives who want people to watch their station.
Providing the cleanest, clearest platform for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to promote their own party policies — without any challenge from the parties who have actually been voting in opposition to the current government — is explicitly advantageous for FG and FF.
The head-to-head is premised on the idea that people will vote for a candidate in their constituency based on who their leader is. To provide two special platforms for Martin and Varadkar is pointless at worst, and prejudicial at best.
Removing all other parties, their ideas, their questions, their supporters and their voices from the conversation does nothing but cement Ireland's reputation as a country where the leader can only come from one of two parties.
It's also notable that the two grown-ups will get the grown-up moderator (the aforementioned Kenny), while the seven-way debate will be moderated by Ivan Yates, which I expect will be like watching a small dog trying to herd a gaggle of furious geese. Matt Cooper will be there too, because eight people on stage clearly wasn't enough.
These debates will go ahead as planned. Varadkar and Martin will get the main event, before joining the other five for a food fight. It remains to be seen who will emerge the winner from these contests — but it certainly won't be the viewing public.