Belfast Telegraph

BBC explains DUP debates exclusion

BBC director general Lord Hall has written to the Democratic Unionist Party to explain why they are not being invited to participate in televised leaders' debates ahead of the general election.

The DUP has protested at a format for the proposed debates set out by the four major broadcasters, which includes leaders from Ukip, the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru alongside the big three parties, but no representatives of Northern Irish parties.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he wants Northern Irish parties included, leading to accusations from Labour that he is seeking to duck the debates.

Lord Hall responded to a letter from the DUP - which has eight MPs at Westminster to the SNP's six, Plaid's three, Ukip's two and the Greens' one - to say that the position set out by the broadcasters had not changed.

Because the party political structure in Northern Ireland is different from that of the rest of the UK, the position of the DUP was not directly comparable with that of the SNP and Plaid, which will be competing with Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates in constituencies where they stand.

If the DUP was invited to take part, impartiality rules would require all of the Northern Ireland parties to be given a spot, the director general wrote.

Mr Cameron previously objected to the plans for three debates put forward last October by the four major broadcasters, because they included a spot for Ukip leader Nigel Farage but not for the Greens' Natalie Bennett.

Now the broadcasters are proposing a revised 7-7-2 format, under which two debates hosted by BBC and ITV would feature the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and a third on Channel 4 and Sky would pit Mr Cameron against Ed Miliband in a head-to-head clash of the two men most likely to emerge as prime minister.

Mr Cameron said on Tuesday that this raised the question of why Northern Irish parties were not included.

The PM insisted he wanted to take part in the debates and hoped a deal could be done, but added: "It was the broadcasters that decided not only to include the Greens, but they then decided to include Plaid Cymru from Wales and the SNP from Scotland and I think the Labour Party and myself both made the point that you can't have one part of the UK - Scotland or Wales - without having another part - Northern Ireland.

"The broadcasters have decided that they want to set the terms for these debates and that is obviously their right to try and do that.

"But if they suggest something that doesn't quite make sense, then it is perfectly fine, I think, for other people to point out some of the issues."

Mr Miliband has committed himself to taking part in the debates, whatever format is chosen and whether or not Mr Cameron turns up. On Tuesday, he accused the PM of "wriggling and wriggling to try to get out of these debates".

DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson described the BBC response as "irrational".

In a message on Twitter, Mr Robinson said he had "received irrational response from BBC DG re: debates. No valid reason for DUP's exclusion offered."

He said Lord Hall had "offered excuse that they couldn't invite one NI party without the others", adding: "Ignores fact that three parties currently invited stand in NI."

Sky News announced it will broadcast a day of live question and answer sessions, including interviews with the leaders of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

Mr Miliband, Mr Clegg and Ms Bennett will appear one by one over the course of February 2 in front of a studio audience of 60 young potential voters who have taken part in Sky's Stand Up Be Counted project.

Q&A interviews will be hosted by Sky News political editor Faisal Islam, but questions will come from audience members in the studio and via Facebook.

The event will be shown live on Sky News and online at the Stand Up Be Counted and Sky News Facebook pages - https://www.facebook.com/SkySUBC and https://www.facebook.com/skynews .

In his letter to Mr Robinson, Lord Hall said the format had been finalised "after careful consideration of our responsibilities to licence fee payers throughout the UK and mindful of our obligations of due impartiality".

"We would not suggest that MPs elected in Northern Ireland have any lesser status than those elected in the rest of the UK," he insisted.

"However, whilst electoral success in the last general election is one of the criteria we took in to account in our assessment of which parties to include in the debates, the current number of seats held is not a conclusive factor.

"As you are aware, the party political structure in Northern Ireland differs significantly from the rest of the UK and is not directly comparable to the situation in Scotland or Wales.

"We are clear that we would not be fulfilling our obligations of impartiality to the voters of Northern Ireland if we were to invite one of the Northern Ireland parties, but not all the others which also have substantial support in Northern Ireland.

"The original proposal for a separate debate between the larger parties in Northern Ireland remains in place. We will be bringing forward plans for that debate to be broadcast across the UK during the election campaign, as well as other proposals for coverage of the main Northern Ireland parties, linked to the UK-wide debate."

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