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Voters deserve more respect

DISPUTES between political parties about the staging of election debates are common. But the current dispute in Ireland departs from the norm, because it is essentially between a party leader and a presenter.

Enda Kenny refused to take part in a three-way debate with Eamon Gilmore and Micheal Martin on TV3 because he had fallen out in the past with the presenter, Vincent Browne. The company suggested an alternative, Ursula Halligan. But as bad luck would have it, the Fine Gael leader had a previous engagement.

Mr Kenny has not behaved wisely. The last time round, in a two-way encounter, Fianna Fail claimed that Bertie Ahern "wiped the floor" with him. That was a wild exaggeration. More objective viewers thought he lost narrowly on points. Either way, he should have been eager to take on Messrs Gilmore and Martin and show his steel. When the three do meet, he will not face formidable opposition on the issue of the economy. Mr Martin is stuck with the outgoing Government's four-year plan. Mr Gilmore has asserted, incorrectly, that the governor of the European Central Bank is only a civil servant and that "Labour's way" can prevail over Frankfurt's.

That was probably the major gaffe of the campaign so far, but there have been plenty of other incidents of a kind not well designed to impress or even amuse the voters.

Labour's finance spokesperson, Joan Burton, has promised to establish a "strategic investment bank" to lend money to small and medium enterprises. She has not explained where the money is to come from, or what criteria the bank is to apply in its lending policy. Fine Gael's health spokesperson, Dr James Reilly, was similarly shy about details yesterday.

This is strange, coming from one of the most vocal people in Irish politics and one who has attracted attention for innovative thinking. He and his party are noted for proposing a radical reform based on universal health insurance. It now appears that the date has been pushed back to at least 2016 -- possibly into the party's second term in office, if it has one.

The current election campaign is perhaps the most important in the country's history. The major parties should act accordingly. Not all voters will study detailed information from the parties. But they deserve to have the information, and they deserve to be treated with much more respect.

Irish Independent