Saturday 3 December 2016

Varadkar is frozen out of referendum debate, despite protests from RTÉ chiefs

Niall O'Connor and Lise Hand

Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30

Health Minister Leo Varadkar has been forced off RTÉ’s final television debate ahead of next week’s Marriage Equality referendum
Health Minister Leo Varadkar has been forced off RTÉ’s final television debate ahead of next week’s Marriage Equality referendum
Sheila Canney casts her vote for the upcoming referendums at Greenpark Nursing Home in Tuam with the help of special presiding officer Teresa Francis. Photo: Andy Newman

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

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

Labour figures were left 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 RTÉ television debates, while Labour would feature in the remaining one. But the row erupted after Labour discovered that Mr Varadkar's officials had approached the national broadcaster last week and offered to put the Dublin West TD forward, without Labour knowing.

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

The Irish Independent understands that RTÉ argued against the decision to replace Mr Varadkar, given that he was the first Cabinet 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 RTÉ source.

But despite RTÉ'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 Alex White said Fine Gael ministers Frances Fitzgerald and Simon Coveney have already appeared on RTÉ flagship programmes and that 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, adding that the referendum campaign is not supposed to be party political.

"On this occasion, and given that RTÉ wanted Leo to appear, was all this really necessary?" asked one Fine Gael source.

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has expressed personal regret over his decision to go ahead and vote 'No' next Friday.

Archbishop Martin said he is not "totally happy" about casting a 'No' vote, but added the alternative will change the concept of marriages and the family, as well as society.

"I believe that what is being proposed constitutes a fundamental change in the philosophic vision of marriage and the family and therefore of society and thus it affects and concerns every citizen," he said.

But Archbishop Martin said his vote is "not against gay and lesbian people".

He said society must consider how to make our gay sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts and friends feel that they fully belong and are not somehow "less".

Irish Independent

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