herald

Saturday 3 December 2016

Varadkar forced off Prime Time debate after coalition row

POLITICS

HEALTH Minister Leo Varadkar has been forced off RTE's final television debate ahead of next week's Marriage Equality referendum after a row erupted between Fine Gael and the Labour Party.

RTE bosses had provisionally booked Mr Varadkar as the government representative for Tuesday night's Prime Time slot, but were later told he was being replaced by Labour minister Alex White.

Labour figures were furious over Mr Varadkar's planned appearance and insisted the move was in breach of a deal struck with Fine Gael prior to the referendum campaign.

The coalition partners had informally agreed that Fine Gael ministers would represent the Government in two live RTE television debates while Labour would feature in the other.

But the row erupted after Labour discovered that Mr Varadkar's officials approached the national broadcaster last week and offered to put the Dublin West TD forward without their knowing.

Labour figures immediately contacted Prime Time chiefs and insisted Mr White would represent the Government during the debate.

The Herald understands that RTE argued against the decision to replace Mr Varadkar given that he is the first minister to come out as a gay man.

"Our job was to get the best people for both sides, and one would have thought that Leo was the best person on the government side for the last debate," said an RTE source.

But despite RTE's protests that Mr Varadkar was their preferred candidate, Labour refused to back down.

"Labour insisted there was a deal in place and they weren't prepared to budge," said a Fine Gael source.

A spokesperson for Mr White said Fine Gael ministers Frances Fitzgerald and Simon Coveney have already appeared on RTE flagship programmes, and a decision was made to put the Communications Minister forward on Tuesday.

"There have been a number of meetings between the parties throughout the campaign. This is what was agreed," the spokesperson said.

But Fine Gael sources said they were "taken aback" by Labour's reaction.

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