It is generally assumed that RTE will host, during the general election campaign, a debate between the candidates for Taoiseach. I think it’s important that they do so, but I also think it is important that they recognise that certain criteria have to be met in a way that have never been met before:
The Candidates: It’s not unreasonable to assume that all three main party leaders should be invited to participate, on the same basis as to how we chooose who gets eliminated in what order under STV. The truth is that Eamonn Gilmore, even under current poll ratings, could be a candidate for Taoiseach if supported in a Dail vote by Sinn Fein and others. Therefore, all three party leaders should participate.
The Format: With respect to Miriam O’Callaghan, who has done a good job in the past, the standard sit-down in a studio with a single questioner format is outdated since the last UK general election, especially as it is very limiting to testing the candidates and to public input.
Instead, I believe that the format should be of a 90 minute debate in front of a large public audience. The questions should be put by a mixed panel of no more than four questioners, allowing for different styles and levels of technical expertise. The panel could include such people as John Bowman, Fionnan Sheehan, Stephen Collins, Olivia O’Leary, Miriam O’Callaghan, Fintan O’Toole and Matt Cooper.
The Questions: The panel should choose the questions, and the candidates should be made aware of the inital question asked to permit them to “settle” into the format. The public should have an input into the questions to be asked, with at least 40% of the questions selected by a public online vote beforehand. This is not, with current technology, an unreasonable task to set.
Given the fluidity of the polls at the moment, this debate has the potential to be for RTE a centrepiece of the campaign, but also a unique opportunity for the public to confront their national leaders on national issues. Let’s hope that RTE realise that. Because if they don’t, FF could decide to host their own debate to this format, on the web, chaired by Matt Cooper or even Ivan Yates. If Inda or Eamonn refused to participate, just watch as the chicken suits appear at every campaign stop.