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RTE considers adding McDonald to debate after Sinn Fein surges past Fine Gael in polls

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Mary Lou McDonald may debate with Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar

Mary Lou McDonald may debate with Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar

PA

Mary Lou McDonald may debate with Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar

RTE is to make a last-minute decision on whether Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is to be included in the final live televised debate of the General Election campaign.

The broadcaster originally planned to host a debate on Prime Time tomorrow featuring only Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin.

Sinn Fein has repeatedly said its party leader should also be permitted to take part.

Following an increase in support for Sinn Fein across a number of opinion polls, RTE has issued a statement saying it will listen to suggestions on its coverage from all political parties.

Criteria

In the statement, the station said: "At the outset of the election RTE set out its approach to leaders' debates based on empirical data. That has not changed.

"Throughout the campaign RTE has considered representations made by those contesting the election regarding our coverage and leaders' debates. We will continue to give consideration to any representation made."

Sinn Fein has put in a formal request to RTE asking that Ms McDonald be included in the final election debate. The party said the criteria for choosing the format of the debate was out of date in light of recent opinion polls.

RTE told Sinn Fein that the station's election coverage steering group will review its request when it meets.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin have said they have no objection to Ms McDonald being included in the debate.

An RTE spokesperson said: "A representative of RTE met with Sinn Fein today and the broadcaster will respond to the issues raised in due course."

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Micheal Martin

Micheal Martin

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

The Labour Party has also written to RTE insisting that the last televised debate of the campaign should include all party leaders.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are locked in an election battle to hold the centre ground in Irish politics as support for Sinn Fein grows.

Both parties have been caught off guard by the shock rise in support for Sinn Fein as the general election campaign enters its final week.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe insisted he was "not giving up or giving in on the centre" but said he would have to "fight" to ensure it holds.

"We have to continue to change the political centre to make sure it works for more people," he told the Herald.

Meanwhile, senior figures in Fine Gael were warning the party needs to significantly change its strategy to focus on Sinn Fein's policies rather than dismissing it as not being a normal party in the run-up to election day.

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

However, there is a division of opinion in the party as other senior ministers believe attacking Sinn Fein drives voters toward Fianna Fail.

"A number of people have told the Taoiseach every time you take on the Shinners it plays into Martin's hands," a senior Fine Gael source said.

Fianna Fail will this week tell voters supporting it is the only way to keep Sinn Fein out of government.

"We will tell voters that if they vote for Mary Lou they could be putting Marxists like Ruth Coppinger and Richard Boyd Barrett in government," a senior party source said.

Fine Gael campaign sources yesterday said they believed Mr Martin was beginning to "unravel" after his interview with Brian Dobson on RTE last Friday.

The party intends targeting Mr Martin over his staff wrongly signing an election pledge on rent freezes and also highlighting typos in Fianna Fail's election manifesto, among other lines of attack.

Meanwhile, Mr Martin sparked anger in Fine Gael when he claimed party members could not "feel for working-class people" because of their "privileged background".

"Fine Gael have a huge sense of entitlement and they believe that they have a divine right to rule," he told the Sunday Independent.

Health Minister Simon Harris accused Mr Martin of attempting to "sow division", while Fine Gael TD Noel Rock attested that he was raised by a single mother in Ballymun.

The Taoiseach said it was "really unfortunate" that Mr Martin was seeking to "inject class politics into Irish politics".