Belfast Telegraph

Where's our seat in TV debates?

Fury among NI parties over exclusion from televised election tussles

By Liam Clarke

Peter Robinson has issued a thinly-veiled threat to sue Ofcom and the four main UK TV broadcasters if his party is excluded from live televised debates planned for the general election campaign.

A number of local parties have also said they should be included in the debates as the farce over them deepened.

The First Minister issued an angry letter last night after BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 issued new proposals for TV election debates which do not include parties from Northern Ireland.

Instead they feature two debates with seven parties - Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems, Ukip, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

"Please rest assured that the DUP will not accept being excluded while parties like Plaid Cymru and SNP are included.

"We will avail ourselves of all available remedies to ensure that Northern Ireland is not treated differently to the other regions and the Democratic Unionist Party is not treated differently to parties with less support at Westminster," the First Minister wrote.

His letter also states: "A debate involving those who could credibly become Prime Minister or indeed a party with substantial support and Members of Parliament across the UK could be defended as could a debate also including all the significant regional parties.

"What is not acceptable is a situation where the largest party in Northern Ireland is to be excluded while regional parties from Scotland and Wales, with fewer seats in Parliament than the DUP are included."

The DUP has eight seats, more than the SNP (6), Plaid Cymru (3) and the Greens (1).

Other Northern Ireland parties who have elected MPs are also piling in with demands that they take part. They are Alliance (1 MP), the SDLP (3) and Sinn Fein (5). All are now also saying they want included in election broadcasts if the Welsh and Scots are there. Lady Sylvia Hermon, the independent unionist in North Down, has not yet commented.

Naomi Long, the Alliance leader in the House of Commons, said: "Lets be honest, if they carry on like this they risk having a panel bigger than the audience.

Any panel that extends beyond four or five members completely kills any debate. It would become a complete waste of time and turn off the public."

Sinn Fein, who don't take their seats in Westminster, also wants to be on the panel.

"Sinn Féin will take every opportunity to present and promote its policies and positions. As a party we will challenge any attempt to discriminate against us," a spokesman said.

In one sense Sinn Fein has the best claim to a place in the debates as it received the biggest popular vote in Northern Ireland in the 2010 Westminster election. The party got 171,942 votes, just pipping the DUP who received 168,216 votes.

Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, said that if one smaller party is included, all Northern Ireland parties should be included.

Presidential-style leader debates were introduced to Britain from the US in 2010. Since then politics has become more fractured. The present mess arose because the broadcasters wanted to include Ukip leader Nigel Farage in the shows because he was controversial and it would improve viewing figures.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, objected because Ukip has only two seats.

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