RTÉ cuts abortion debate down to two men after furious dispute
A massive behind-the-scenes row saw the No campaign withdraw from last night's referendum debate after RTÉ rejected attempts to substitute Cora Sherlock with Maria Steen.
The No side accused the broadcaster and the Government of running "scared" of Ms Steen, who was the star performer in the first debate last week. But RTÉ said it would not be dictated to and declined to accept the Iona Institute representative on the basis that she took part in the 'Claire Byrne Live' debate.
Sources say a furious dispute erupted as 'Prime Time' executives scrambled to find an alternative speaker for the No side. At one point, presenter Miriam O'Callaghan is understood to have personally texted TDs who oppose repealing the Eighth Amendment to seek help with the situation.
In the end, the show went to air with Ms O'Callaghan apologising to viewers that the main participants were two men.
She noted Ms Sherlock's absence, saying: "For balance, we had to reduce it to two."
It's understood that Ms Steen even arrived at the RTÉ campus in Dublin 4 yesterday evening in case the broadcaster caved at the last minute. Health Minister Simon Harris debated Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín on stage.
Consultant obstetrician Professor Mary Higgins, who had been intended as the second Yes representative, was only allowed to make contributions from the audience.
The Irish Independent understands Ms Sherlock agreed in writing last Thursday to take part in the debate - but the No campaign had a rethink in recent days.
Barrister Ben Ó Floinn, who was engaged in direct talks with RTÉ, said groups including Love Both and Savethe8th decided that Ms Steen should be their "joint nominee".
RTÉ argued that an editorial decision had been taken not to allow the same participants in two debates. In turn, the No side made the point that Yes supporter Dr Peter Boylan was on the 'Late Late Show' and 'Claire Byrne Live'.
A source said a 'Mexican stand-off' developed as RTÉ refused "point-blank" to back down. Savethe8th spokesman John McGuirk described the situation as "pathetic", suggesting that RTÉ and Mr Harris were scared of Ms Steen.
Senior sources close to the minister denied outright that he attempted to influence the make-up of the panels. They also noted Ms Sherlock has repeatedly challenged him to a debate during the campaign.
In a statement after the debate, RTÉ said it was "disappointed to learn that Cora Sherlock was unavailable to take part… despite confirming her participation last week".
"The television debate on the referendum continued with the panel of Minister for Health Simon Harris and Peadar Tóibín TD, in addition to substantial contributions from the audience, which gave an equitable and fair opportunity to both sides to express their views."