Nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed, insists negotiator Howlin


LABOUR:A MEMBER of the Labour negotiating team has said the party’s talks with Fine Gael on the formation of a coalition government will be “profound and stark”.

Labour’s spokesman on constitutional matters Brendan Howlin said the discussions were taking place against the background of a very serious political climate.

Mr Howlin is one of a four-person team selected by party leader Eamon Gilmore last night following his 80-minute meeting with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny in Leinster House.

The delegation will be led by deputy leader Joan Burton and will also include justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte and the party’s policy director Colm O’Reardon.

Dr O’Riordan is the brother of Aodhán O Ríordáin, the party’s newly elected deputy in Dublin North Central.

Negotiations with the Fine Gael team of Phil Hogan, Michael Noonan and Alan Shatter begin this morning, after the second face-to-face meeting between Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore.

Following yesterday’s meeting, Mr Gilmore briefed the 60-strong general council of the party on the talks and impending negotiations. The general council is composed of a representative from each constituency, party officials and members of the national executive.

Labour’s enlarged representation of 36 TDs will hold its first formal meeting in Dublin this afternoon. A party spokesman said that Labour priorities in the negotiations would be discussed. Several Labour deputies, including Joanna Tuffy and Sean Kenny, have said the party should play “hardball” to protect key positions.

Labour is also beginning preparations to convene a full delegate conference at short notice, which may take place this weekend. The meeting will be held to discuss any draft programme of government that might emerge.

While the positions of the two parties are similar in a number of areas, there are major differences over key issues such as the reduction of public sector debt, the ratio between tax and cuts, water charges, property tax, indirect taxes and public sector reform.

Labour’s position is that the target of reducing public debt to 3 per cent of national income should be extended until 2016. It has also argued that public spending should be reduced by €7 billion and not by €9 billion between 2011 and 2014 and that there should be a 50:50 ratio between expenditure cuts and new taxes.

For its part, Fine Gael has set more onerous targets for reducing the national debt (a €9 billion adjustment by 2014, at which time the target of 3 per cent is reached) and has also said that there should be a ratio of about 2½ to 1 between cuts and expenditure.

However, neither party has identified any of those positions as red-line issues, over which they would not compromise.

The only issues publicly identified as “red-line” by Labour are in relation to child benefit and third-level fees. In the last week of the campaign, Mr Gilmore said Fine Gael must drop its plans to cut child benefit and introduce a graduate tax if it was serious about being involved in a coalition with his party.

On Sunday, when asked if they were still red-line issues, he said: “Everything we said we stand over. Everything we said was accurate. We are confident we can negotiate a programme for government and can reach agreement on how such a government will be formed.”

Mr Howlin, who like Mr Rabbitte was involved in coalition negotiations in 1994, said the process adopted then was that all the headings where there was little potential for division were dealt with first. The focus then turned to areas where there was no agreement.

“It is done on the basis of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he said.