'Should you insist on refusing, I will propose to Eamon that we arrange debates between ourselves'
FINE Gael leader Enda Kenny last night insisted he will take part only in TV debates featuring all five political party leaders -- and will not go head to head with just Eamon Gilmore and Micheal Martin.
Mr Kenny wants just two election debates between all five party leaders, prompting claims from Fianna Fail and Labour that he is "running scared" of taking on their heavyweight debaters.
Rather than three-way contests, Mr Kenny is insisting he would be happy to take part in a more crowded five-way showdown, which would include Green leader John Gormley and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams.
Such five-way debates would leave Mr Kenny less isolated and less open to major scrutiny and probing.
In a letter seen by the Irish Independent, Fine Gael last night responded to invitations from RTE, TV3, TG4 and Sky for a total of six separate debates.
Fine Gael argued for just two five-way leader debates.
The party last night claimed the "fairest approach" to the new debates format is to hold one between all five party leaders -- with one in English and one in Irish.
Fine Gael said it rejected the rationale for including some parties represented in Dail Eireann while excluding others.
And it claimed the forthcoming election was different to all previous elections because the incumbent Taoiseach is not standing for election as leader of his party.
"Fine Gael believes that it is time to break with the past and approach party leader television debates differently," the party argued.
Its insistence on five-way debates and the proposal for a moderator and a neutral venue where all TV channels could transmit from is likely to cause consternation today.
It is understood RTE favours two three-way leadership debates and one five-way debate, while TV3 and TG4 both propose three-way debates and Sky seeks a five-way debate.
Both Fianna Fail and Labour, who favour a three-way debate, accused Mr Kenny of "running scared".
Both parties threatened to go head-to-head in a debate without Mr Kenny.
"Should you insist on refusing...I will propose to Eamon that we proceed to arrange a series of debates between ourselves," Fianna Fail leader Mr Martin told Mr Kenny in a second letter in 24 hours yesterday.
He later accused Mr Kenny of trying to "avoid" a three-way debate, while Labour's Ciaran Lynch said it was disappointing that Fine Gael does not want to put its "captain on the pitch".
Tourism and Enterprise Minister Mary Hanafin last night waded into the controversy and told the Irish Independent that Mr Kenny had been keeping a "low profile" in recent weeks.
"Is this a sign of what he intends to do in the election?" she said of Mr Kenny.
"A five-way debate is only trying to limit the exposure that he has if the time has to be divided between them, whereas with a three-way debate the focus very much comes on the major party leaders and the policies."
"There is no Taoiseach contesting this election," Mr Kernny said.
"If we are going to debate the issues, all the leaders are going to be involved."
He claimed Mr Martin was in "no position to dictate".
tv debates win elections: sam smyth, page 29