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John Downing: 'Things are suddenly going better for Mary Lou - but she's not getting a 'big table' seat in TV debates as 'Leo v Micheál' will decide this election'

John Downing


Campaign: Mary Lou McDonald at Sinn Féin’s candidate launch in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Campaign: Mary Lou McDonald at Sinn Féin’s candidate launch in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Campaign: Mary Lou McDonald at Sinn Féin’s candidate launch in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

The past few days have been kinder to Mary Lou McDonald and her colleagues in the upper echelons of Sinn Féin than their experiences of recent months.

Two opinion polls have put Sinn Féin in and around the same ball park as the "big parties" Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It was especially pleased with yesterday's poll which put them up a full seven points and on 21pc, to Fianna Fáil's 25pc and Fine Gael's 23pc.

The good news allowed Ms McDonald to push back her shoulders after poor returns from the October 2018 presidential elections, and the May 2019 European Parliament and local government elections.

Suddenly, the by-election Dáil seat win in Dublin Mid-West last November looks less of a one-off.

Yesterday's Ipsos MRBI survey for the 'Irish Times' also allowed Ms McDonald and other party luminaries to pump up the volume in their push to be included in the TV debates, which are restricted to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin.

Both RTÉ and Virgin Media are insistent they will stick to their plans to only allow Ms McDonald participate in the other debates which will also include leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Social Democrats, Renua and Solidarity-People Before Profit.

Sinn Féin is making veiled threats about "taking advice" on the issue, suggesting it could be headed for the law courts. It's an understandable device to generate more media coverage in an election campaign - but it seems unlikely that such a legal gambit would yield the desired result.

If it is in any doubt, they should have a word with Eamon Ryan and the Green Party who took an unsuccessful High Court case during the last election trying to reverse their exclusion from a big RTÉ debate involving seven leaders.

The Greens had argued that RTÉ stipulating that only parties with three TDs in the outgoing Dáil could participate was unfair, undemocratic and unconstitutional and in breach of RTÉ's legal obligations as a public service broadcaster.

RTÉ counter-argued that its criteria were objective, fair, transparent and applicable to all parties. The Greens effectively wanted the broadcaster to apply "subjective" criteria for leaders' debates that would favour the Greens over other parties, it argued.

In the end the only soot the Green Party got was that the judge ruled there was a real question to be answered.

On that basis each side paid its own costs, estimated at €50,000 each.

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This writer would never dream of second guessing what a judge would do if Sinn Féin was to risk a court outing this time. But it is clear that its case would be even weaker than that of the Greens in 2016 since it is, after all, included in the other debates.

Equally, there is no denying that a crucial factor in this election will be the choice of "Leo or Micheál for Taoiseach".

When the last Dáil concluded, Fine Gael had 47 seats, Fianna Fáil had 46, while Sinn Féin had 22.

Recent good opinion poll figures cannot over-rule poor showings in the presidential, local and European elections over the past 18 months.

It is not realistic to postulate that Mary Lou McDonald has a serious chance of becoming taoiseach just yet at any rate.

Yesterday, her party announced it will field 42 candidates across the 39 constituencies. Reality is it would need almost all of those to get elected for Sinn Féin to be the dominant party in any coalition talks after polling day.

And the reaction of the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders to the Sinn Féin debate complaint was of interest in itself.

Leo Varadkar said it was up to the two broadcasters to make their own decisions on the formula.

But speaking on the canvass in Fermoy, the Taoiseach essentially said that if Ms McDonald was given a late call-up to make a three-way debate, he would fall into line.

But Mr Martin emphatically said Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were the only two parties that could lead the next government.

"I don't think we should be deciding these issues on opinion polls," he said dismissing the Sinn Féin gambit.

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