Martin challenges rivals to three-way election debate
New FF chief sent letter to opposition after winning vote
NEWLY elected Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin last night challenged opposition leaders to a series of debates ahead of the general election.
One of his first acts as leader was to send letters to Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, inviting them to a series of "substantive debates" during the campaign.
Mr Gilmore last night claimed the proposals for debates at the start and end of the election campaign were "acceptable in principle".
But Fine Gael insisted it had not yet received the letter and claimed it would respond in "due course".
On top of the three-way debates between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour on RTE, TV3 and TG4, Mr Martin also argued for one-to-one debates between all of the party leaders, including Sinn Fein and the Greens.
"This approach would give us all time to lay out our cases and debate them in proper detail -- moving away from the empty soundbite culture which too often dominates campaigns," Mr Martin said in his letters to Fine Gael and Labour.
The decisive and prompt move by Mr Martin is designed to draw attention to the different policies of Fine Gael and Labour, who will likely form the next government.
He will also be hoping to repeat the success of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who took Mr Kenny to task in a TV debate in the last week of the 2007 election campaign, and turned the party's fortunes around.
TV3 last night welcomed Mr Martin's appeal and said it had been holding discussions with the main parties about staging a debate.
While it is up to the Taoiseach to decide on the exact election date, Mr Martin said four weeks would give a "good timeframe" to have the necessary debates between all parties.
He insisted it was "not good enough" to have leaders' debates at the end of the campaign and claimed debates must kick-start the election.
And he said the debates would be the "most extensive and detailed series of debates yet seen in an Irish election".
The election ahead, he said, was the toughest Fianna Fail had ever faced.
Debates at the start of the election campaign would potentially favour Fianna Fail and give it much-needed momentum at a time when it was languishing at 14pc in the opinion polls.
The newly elected leader, who commanded 33 first preference votes to emerge as the clear winner, refused to state how many seats Fianna Fail could win or what percentage it could climb back to in the polls.
"It's obvious we want to go as high as we possibly can. Clearly, we want to be higher than where we were," Mr Martin said.
He now becomes the eighth leader of Fianna Fail, while former leader Brian Cowen remains on as Taoiseach.
Mr Martin tried to draw a clear line in the sand by conceding that mistakes had been made by the Fianna Fail-led governments.
Mr Cowen previously offered half-hearted apologies but Mr Martin went further yesterday.
"I am sorry for the mistakes we made as a party and the mistakes I made as a minister, very sorry for those mistakes that were made," he said.
And he claimed the most important thing to do when things went wrong was to learn lessons.
Amid speculation that Mr Cowen may opt against running in the general election-and put at risk the other two Fianna Fail seats in Laois-Offaly, the new leader refused to be drawn on whether the Taoiseach will run.
"People are entitled to their space and their decision-making process," Mr Martin said.
Following a meeting of the party's National Executive last night, Mr Martin said he would be in a better position to discuss candidates and conventions.
He will appoint his deputy leader, a director of elections and a frontbench team in the coming days.
"Some people appear to want a coronation rather than an election. Some suggest that it is all over before it has started. I can assure you that my party intends campaigning with energy and with fresh ideas," Mr Martin said.
He insisted he had "no regrets" about the events of recent weeks, which led to him opposing a motion of confidence in the Taoiseach, which later prompted his resignation as Foreign Affairs Minister.