Election 2020: Everything you need to know ahead of the first of four televised debates

Controversially, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has been excluded from both tonight’s debate and the final debate before the country goes to the polls.

Election 2020: Everything you need to know ahead of the first of four televised debates

Tonight sees the first of four televised debates before next month’s General Election as the two front runners to lead the post-Brexit Government face off.

Controversially, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has been excluded from both tonight’s debate and the final debate before the country goes to the polls.

Between those two debates, there are two bigger ones which will include Ms McDonald, Labour leader Brendan Holwin, as well as the Green Party and other smaller parties.

Here's all you need to know as Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar prepare to face the nation for the first debate.

When are these debates taking place?

The Pat Kenny-hosted Virgin Media debate between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar takes place tonight at 9.30pm.

The Claire Byrne Live Leaders' Debate between the leaders from a number of political parties takes place on January 27 at 9.35 with a post-debate show The Spin Room. The seven political parties leaders joining Claire on stage for the major two hour live debate will be: Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin), Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael), Brendan Howlin (Labour), Micheál Martin (Fianna Fáil), Richard Boyd Barrett (Solidarity / People Before Profit), Eamon Ryan (Green Party) and Roísín Shortall (Social Democrats).

The second broadcast on Virgin Media will be a debate where the seven major parties will be represented which will be hosted by Ivan Yeats and Matt Cooper on January 30.

On February 4, just days before the country goes to the polls, The Prime Time Leaders Debate will see Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin face off.

Why was Mary Lou McDonald excluded

Broadcasting regulations mean that media coverage of elections must be fair and unbiased.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean every party or candidate gets equal time.

Broadcasters can use the results of the previous General and Local Elections for guidance in determining how much coverage a party, or parties, get.

In the 2016 General Election, Fine Gael got 25.5% of the first-preference vote, Fianna Fáil 24.3% and Sinn Féin 13.8%. Last year’s Local Elections saw FG 26.9%, FF 25.3% and SF 9.5%.

These results mean both RTÉ and Virgin Media can have Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar face off in a one-on-one debate as their parties were well ahead of third-place Sinn Féin in the last ballots.

What about the opinion polls?

The two opinion polls that have come out since the election was announced have seen Sinn Féin close the gap considerably.

The Irish Times poll had Fianna Fáil ahead on 25%, Fine Gael on 23% and Sinn Féin on 21%. When undecideds (20%) were included in the results, the gap between second and third tightens - FF 20%, FG 18% and SF 17%.

However, neither RTÉ nor Virgin Media are obliged to use these polls as the basis for organising their televised debates.

This poll came out just days after Fianna Fáil saw a 12-point lead over Fine Gael in the Sunday Times. That poll had Leo Varadkar’s party just one point above Sinn Féin.

What other TV coverage can we expect ahead of the General Election?

RTÉ also announced that party leaders will also face Bryan Dobson in a series of interviews to be broadcast throughout the campaign. While on Virgin Media Colette Fitzpatrick will also interviewing all party leaders live on the News at 5.30.

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