Defiant Kenny digs in over snub to TV debate
Controversy over political donations to take centre stage in campaign
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny was last night sticking to his high-risk strategy of shunning the first TV debate of the 2011 General Election campaign as his policies came under intense scrutiny.
Party strategists insisted Mr Kenny would not be "bulldozed" into decisions about the party campaign, including the showdowns between the leaders.
Shifting the focus off the leaders' debates, Mr Kenny will this morning announce a pledge to ban corporate donations for political parties and proposed cuts to the pay, conditions and severance packages of the Taoiseach and ministers in the new government.
Political reform is expected to dominate the agenda on the seventh day of the campaign with Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fail all due to publish "radical" proposals .
But the first TV debate tomorrow night will be seen by almost a million people and Mr Kenny's absence has sparked accusations that he is running scared .
His latest excuse for not participating is that his schedule does not allow it as he is attending a meeting in Leitrim.
Fine Gael believes it has already made considerable concessions by agreeing to two debates.
One of these will involve Labour leader Eamon Gilmore in the main TV confrontation, which is normally only between the Taoiseach and opposition leader.
Mr Kenny's critics claim the party is deliberately trying to shield him from the spotlight because he is a weak debater and his performance in the 2007 General Election against Bertie Ahern damaged the party.
But FG insiders believe that, as the largest political party in the polls and widely tipped to lead the next government, it should not be bounced into positions. "We're not going to be bulldozed into making a decision about any aspect of the campaign," a senior party source said.
Mr Kenny also came under fire yesterday as the party unveiled its health policy -- a central plank of its election campaign.
The launch of Fine Gael's health manifesto was dampened by the revelation that the long-promised universal health insurance system will not get off the ground for at least another five years.
And it will be nearly five years after that before all the necessary changes to "bed it down" and extend it to the entire population will be in place.
Fine Gael and Labour are preparing to attack Fianna Fail's election manifesto, to be launched today, pointing at the party's failure to implement the policies contained in it while in power for the past 14 years.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin will launch a party plan including:
- Proposals for political reform.
- Reform of the membership of all state boards.
- Training measures to help people who have lost their jobs to get back to work.
- Supports for small- and medium-sized businesses.
But the fact Fianna Fail is heading for the opposition benches makes many of its promises irrelevant.
Mr Kenny's latest excuse is one of several given by the Fine Gael leader for not participating in the three-way TV3 debate tomorrow night.
First he said it would exclude the leaders of other political parties.
Then said he would not participate if it was moderated by journalist Vincent Browne as Mr Kenny objected to comments Mr Browne made last year about suicide. His communications spokesman Simon Coveney then said Mr Browne had been very critical of Mr Kenny when other party TDs were on his nightly TV show.
But despite TV3 offering to have the station's political editor Ursula Halligan moderate the debate instead of Mr Browne, Mr Kenny last night said he couldn't attend on Tuesday because of his schedule. Mr Kenny will instead attend a town hall meeting in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim.
But Mr Martin and Mr Gilmore have seized the opportunity of reaching an audience of potentially 1m viewers.
"I've had about six requests for leaders' debates," Mr Kenny said yesterday.
"This is just not possible. I don't have a problem with that at all and I want that broadcast simultaneously to every broadcaster to deal with the issue of requests for six debates."
He said he was not interested in "in-fighting between broadcasters" and wanted to sell Fine Gael's plans to people in person.
Mr Kenny added that he saw debates as "an element of a campaign" rather than the central element.
He also said TV3 jumped the gun in proposing tomorrow's debate and added that he still had an issue with Mr Browne's comments. "That doesn't fit into my schedule at all. It's a case where TV3 says: 'We want the debate on Tuesday night before anyone else so, Mr Politicians, comply.'
"I actually have a very busy schedule around the country and I look forward to a three-way debate. I am not being pulled in to a debate because a TV station or company says we want this debate at this time."
Fianna Fail senator Marc McSharry accused Mr Kenny of another "dodge".
"On the day when he claimed that he would personally 'renew the Republic' he has again raised questions about how he would behave if he were elected Taoiseach," Mr McSharry said.