The main TV election debates in Ireland should be limited to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin has insisted.

The Fianna Fail leader was responding to calls from Sinn Fein to be included in the televised showdowns on RTE and Virgin Media One.

Buoyed by two strong opinion poll showings in recent days, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald criticised the broadcasters for limiting the debates to head-to-heads between Mr Martin and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Sinn Fein’s director of elections Pearse Doherty wrote to Virgin Media on Monday night, expecting both broadcasters to reverse the decision, and the party are currently seeking legal advice on whether they can fight the exclusion.

Responding on a visit to Longford on Tuesday, Mr Martin said Fianna Fail 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.

“The only two parties that can lead a government in my view are Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. The only party that can actually lead an alternative government is Fianna Fail – we’re the only party that can bring about a change of government, with other parties (junior coalition partners) I acknowledge.

“I think it is legitimate that there would be a head-to-head debate between myself and Leo Varadkar in terms of putting an option to the people in terms of the type of governments we would lead.”

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Varadkar said he would have no difficulty debating Ms McDonald.

The Taoiseach told reporters in Fermoy, Co Cork, on Tuesday: “It is actually up to the broadcasters and I understand there may be a court action about it now, so I’d prefer not to say more.

“I don’t have a difficulty debating Micheal Martin head to head and I think it is right that we should do that, but equally I would have no difficulty doing a debate involving the three leaders of the three major parties.”

Ms McDonald has characterised the decision to confine the debates to the two leaders as undemocratic but says it should not have to go as far as the courts “on such an obvious issue of fairness”.

“I don’t believe for a second that people on the ground regard this election as a two-horse race, I think that’s a media construction,” she said.

“I think people understand fully that whoever can assemble a mandate for government and lead that will be the Taoiseach, and people on the ground are saying it’s not fair to exclude voices such as ours.

“Substantial amounts of the population will never vote for Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, so it’s important those voices are heard.

“The last thing we want to be is on a collision course with any section of the media, but we need to stand up for what’s right.”

The party says the legal advice is ongoing and noted the obligations under the Broadcasting Act, and the two most recent polls.

When asked about Mr Martin’s comments that is legitimate that only he and Mr Varadkar debate, Ms McDonald replied: “Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?

“They want it all their own way, in the last Dail they wanted not only to be in government but they wanted the opposition benches as well.

“Now they want to ‘debate’ each other and jump ahead of the democratic process, and are arrogant enough to say that they want to decide who can and cannot be in government, it’s extraordinary stuff.

“It’s a bad joke two men who have been in government together for four years debating the big issues of the day.”