Are we there yet? The seven sticking points in government formation talks
Legislative and political deadlines mean talks must finish by next week, senior figures say
Green deputy leader Catherine Martin must decide by this weekend if she will challenge Eamon Ryan for the leadership. Photograph: Eric Luke
Time is getting tight for negotiators from the Green Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil trying to put together a programme for government, with political and legislative deadlines beginning to crowd in on the process.
Some Ministers and senior officials, as well as Opposition politicians involved in the process, privately warn that talks will have to be concluded by next week at the latest. They point to the need to pass votes in the Dáil and Seanad before June 30th or key sections of the Offences Against the State Act – the anti-terrorist and organised crime legislation that governs, among other things, the Special Criminal Court – will lapse. The Act must be reviewed every year and its extension approved by votes in the Oireachtas. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is expected to bring the annual review to the Oireachtas next week.
Party insiders say it could take up to two weeks for the parties to gain approval from their memberships (which could, of course, decide to reject any deal). If an agreement on a programme for government were to be reached this day next week, that would leave one week at the end of June for the election of a new taoiseach by the Dáil, the nomination of ministers and the passing of the votes on the Offences Against the State Act. In other words, not much wriggle room.
Separately, Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin must decide by this weekend if she will let her name go forward to challenge Eamon Ryan for the leadership of the Green Party. Martin – who is heading the Green negotiating team at the talks – has been approached by some party activists who want her to stand against Ryan, and has said she will consider her options. A contest would not take place until after the conclusion of the government-formation process, one way or another.
But what are the chances of agreeing a deal by next week? Insiders vary in their assessments of progress thus far, but while it is clear that significant progress has been made – and agreed documents on a range of policy issues were due to be signed off by the teams on Tuesday night – there are a number of areas where agreement has not yet been reached.
STICKING POINTS: SEVEN KEY DIFFERENCES IN THE TALKS
The 7 per cent target
This is the key policy for the Greens, and insiders say the programme will contain a commitment to reduce Ireland’s emissions of greenhouses gases by an average of 7 per cent a year. The Greens have pressed on how exactly this would be achieved and measured, where sticking points remain.
This includes a contentious review of the National Development Plan. The Greens are sticking to the requirement to have 10 per cent of the transport budget set aside for cycling and 10 per cent for walking, though have conceded that the budget for roads maintenance should be preserved as a road safety measure.
There are major differences on the Land Development Agency, the State body with the remit to develop State lands for housing. The Greens believe such lands should be developed by the State for public housing and oppose lands being sold to private developers.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s rural constituencies are wary of the Greens’ influence in this area, and some of the Green proposals have proved particularly problematic – including a requirement that targets be set for the number of hectares of bog to be “rewetted”.
State pension age
This is primarily a dispute between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The State pension age is due to increase to 67 next year, and Fianna Fáil says the planned rise should not go ahead and has called for a review of pension policy. It is understood this would also take a wider look at the PRSI system. Fine Gael insists that deferring the eligibility age must go ahead, claiming it would not be prudent to abandon it. It believes transition welfare payments should apply until someone reaches 67. Legislation that would ban forcing people to retire at 65 is also being discussed.
Budget and economic issues
A session on finance and economic issues over the weekend is said to have been difficult. Green finance spokeswoman Neasa Hourigan sought details on budgetary measures that could be introduced in next autumn’s budget, but both Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath pushed back, insisting it was impossible to predict the economic conditions that far ahead given the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Underpinning the parties’ differences, however, are the fears of some Green TDs that the Government will be forced – or choose – to introduce cuts to public spending or tax increases, and that they will be pilloried by critics on the left, especially Sinn Féin, for supporting “austerity”. Fine Gael is also understood to be pushing for a broad commitment to income tax cuts at some point during the government’s term of office if circumstances allow, but Fianna Fáil and the Greens are not keen, with some arguing that such a pledge may never be delivered upon.
Ending the direct provision system is a key demand of the Greens and a cherished goal of the party membership. Green Party figures say they want an immediate overhaul of the system in advance of it being scrapped entirely, with responsibility for housing those waiting on asylum decisions being passed to Approved Housing Bodies. Green sources are impatient with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael arguments for a phasing out of the direct provision system over a number of years.
Catherine Day, a former secretary general of the European Commission, is due to report back to the government later this year on the future of direct provision. Her report is cited by those in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but the Greens are suspicious of claims that it would take years to abolish the current system.