Belfast Telegraph

Debates 'should include N Ireland'

David Cameron has said he believes a deal can be done to go ahead with televised leaders' debates during the general election campaign, if Northern Ireland is included.

The Prime Minister - who has been accused by critics of seeking to dodge the debates - insisted he was saying "Yes" to taking part, but blamed the broadcasters for putting forward a proposal which "doesn't quite make sense".

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 Scottish National Party 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 this raised the question of why Northern Irish parties were not included. The Democratic Unionist Party, which has eight MPs in the House of Commons, has already protested at its exclusion, when parties such as the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Ukip and the Greens were invited, despite having a smaller representation in Parliament.

Asked when he would finally agree to take part in the debates, the PM told BBC1's Breakfast: "I am saying `Yes'. I think they are a good thing. We need to have these discussions so we agree who is in and the format and the rest of it.

"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."

Asked if he believes an agreement on formats can be reached, Mr Cameron replied: "I think the deal could be done, yes."

He added: "I do want to say 'Yes' ... I think we have made good progress, we should let these talks continue and conclude and then we can get on with the debates."

Mr Cameron told Sky News: "I thought at the last election they were excellent, the debates, but they took the life out of the election campaign. We know when the election is, so let's get on with the debates before that campaign begins."

Mr Miliband gave a commitment to take part in the debates, whatever format is chosen and whether or not Mr Cameron turns up.

He accused the PM of lacking leadership, and said Mr Cameron was "wriggling and wriggling" in his attempts to avoid them.

Mr Miliband told BBC Radio 5 Live: "I want these debates to happen. The Prime Minister is wriggling and wriggling on these debates.

"We want these debates to happen. Let's make these debates happen.

"I will give you a clear commitment. I am going to be at those debates, whether it's an empty chair or David Cameron, I'm going to be at those debates.

"He likes to talk about leadership, he gives it the big one about leadership. If he is so confident about leadership, why is he so desperate to avoid these debates?

"We are going to come to those debates. We want them to happen."

Mr Miliband told BBC1's Breakfast: "The Prime Minister is wriggling and wriggling to try to get out of these debates.

"If the broadcasters want to invite the Democratic Unionists or other Northern Irish parties, that is a matter for them.

"Let's make these debates happen, let's have David Cameron actually sign up and say he is going to do these debates, not keep trying to avoid them.

"Frankly, it's becoming a sort of charade from him. He clearly doesn't want to do the debates and wants to find lots of different ways of trying to claim that he really does want to do them."

Speaking to LBC radio, Mr Cameron insisted he was "not fighting shy" of the debates, and joked that viewers might anyway prefer to be watching the BBC's hit Tudor drama Wolf Hall.

When presenter Nick Ferrari joked that, with the roster of leaders constantly expanding, there threatened to be more people in the debates than watching them, the PM replied: "I'm not in charge of the viewing figures. If people want to watch a television debate or if they prefer an episode of Wolf Hall, that's up to them."

Asked if Sinn Fein should be included, he said: "That's not for me to say."

Challenged over Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's claims that he was trying to avoid a debate by insisting on the inclusion of the Green Party, Mr Cameron said: "He didn't want the Greens in the debate because the Greens might take some of his voters away. I understand that - it's just his self-interest, and he's dressing that up as some high principle."

A poll for ITV News found that 64% of voters think the TV debates should go ahead even if Mr Cameron refuses to take part.

Some two in five Britons (39%) and half of 18-24 year olds (51%), told pollsters ComRes the debates will be important in helping them decide which way to vote.

Half (49%) said the inclusion of seven parties will make for a more interesting debate and half (47%) thought it was right for parties from Scotland and Wales to take part. Just 23% agreed it was "pointless" for smaller parties to be included.

:: ComRes interviewed 2,039 British adults online between January 23 and 25.

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