Bickering wears down patience as government talks crawl forwards
Old truism that FF easily accepts policy demands, but FG digs in – is proving true again
Green Party TDs Ossian Smyth and Catherine Martin, and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
A draft agreement was hoped for by this weekend, but that will not happen. Maybe next week, some now suggest. Others wonder if the middle of June – or even later in the month – is not more realistic.
But, as always, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Some days, negotiations – broken up into two-hourly sessions due to Covid-19 restrictions – can run all day. Some days, there may be just one session.
The two-hour limit hampers speedy progress, say party insiders, although a lot of work is done through the exchange of papers outside the negotiating room.
Each team preps beforehand. Later, they can be seen walking from Leinster House to Agriculture House, where the sessions take place, via an access road that runs along the back of Government Buildings.
Talks on different subjects are happening in parallel, involving policy spokespeople and key negotiators. Everything feeds back into plenary session meetings involving the core teams.
There, a topic, if agreed, is signed off. Difficulties, if there are some, are worked through by party deputy leaders: Simon Coveney for Fine Gael, Dara Calleary for Fianna Fáil, and the Greens’ Catherine Martin.
Both the Greens and Fine Gael say that Fianna Fáil’s impatience to conclude a deal at any price is jarring
If they fail, the issue is escalated to the party leaders. However, some issues take the short route, going directly to Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan. Too many things are being pushed upstairs, some fear.
Thus far, say sources, there have not been many rows, but there has been bickering. Fianna Fáil and the Greens point the finger at Fine Gael, while Fine Gael and the Greens blame Fianna Fáil, in the weakest political position and desperate for a deal, for over-optimistic media briefings about the pace of the talks.
The harder the session, joked one participant, the sunnier the account we hear on the news. Both the Greens and Fine Gael say that Fianna Fáil’s impatience to conclude a deal at any price is jarring. Fianna Fáil and the Greens reckon that several Fine Gael ministers are lukewarm on the prospect at best – and some are outright opposed.
The old truism of Irish politics, as recounted by numerous smaller parties and Independents with experience of coalition negotiations past – that Fianna Fáil easily accepts policy demands, but Fine Gael digs in – is proving true again.
Fine Gaelers complain that Fianna Fáil is too ready to bow to the Greens; Greens say that Fine Gael, with Coveney to the fore, are unwilling to bend, and, by and large, that dealings with Fianna Fáil are unproblematic.
If the Greens have problems with Fine Gael, then some in Fine Gael have problems with the Greens, too. One Fine Gael source described a Green TD as having an approach “of the loud-mouthed returnee for the weekend to the local pub where he grew up . . . he knows best, and he knows a lot which he wants to get off his chest”.
Further sticking points lie ahead: the public finances; the division of money between roads, cycling and pedestrians; agriculture and ways to reach the Greens’ main goal of reducing carbon emissions by 7 per cent annually.
The easier tasks have been dispensed with and tougher negotiating lies ahead.
“I guess it’s at that point in the cycle,” said a senior Fine Gael source. “There’ll be decision points next week.”
Fine Gael has already set out strong positions on defending Varadkar’s Project Ireland 2040 plan – the Taoiseach, likely with an eye to rural voters wary of the Greens, told party councillors this week that maintaining road investment is a “red line” – and its intention to tackle the deficit. It is also said to be insistent that the State pension age must rise to 67, against the wishes of the Greens and Fianna Fáil.
One of the sharpest rows so far has come between the bigger two parties on an issue no one would have predicted: Fianna Fáil’s demand to reinstate the Army’s 4th Western Brigade headquarters at Custume Barracks in Athlone.
Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambers, the former defence spokesman whose stock is rising in his party, is said to have strongly argued with Coveney in an exchange which surprised others.
The simple things irritate. Fianna Fáil complain that Fine Gael has Government Buildings and its facilities on hand, while they – on Dáil non-sitting days anyway – are chucked out of their Leinster House offices at half-five.
“Tough,” chuckles one Fine Gaeler. Tension between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil surfaces intermittently. “The Greens are not the problem in this negotiation,” grimaces one Fianna Fáiler. Another agrees enthusiastically.
Throughout the talks – and indeed well before them – one of the key alliances has been between the Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath and the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe.
Their co-operation, grounded in a similar political view and ties built during three years of keeping the confidence and supply agreement going, has been one of the engines behind the talks.
But they have not always seen eye-to-eye with the Greens’ finance spokeswoman, Neasa Hourigan, who feared that their insistence on a commitment to deficit reduction could see the Greens obliged to back austerity policies.
Hourigan is outspoken; deputy leader Catherine Martin, who opposed entering negotiations at all, but was then appointed to head the team, is anything but, sources say. “She sits there like a sphinx,” says one insider.
This is disputed by those who know Martin. “That is not a fair characterisation,” said one. “She is a ‘keep your counsel’ type of person.”
Senior party officials play an important role. The Taoiseach’s adviser John Carroll is especially prominent on the Fine Gael team, acting as Varadkar’s eyes and ears.
Carroll sometimes dominates the Fine Gael side of the exchanges, with some Fine Gael ministers deferring to him, though others resent this. His Fianna Fáil counterpart is Deirdre Gillane, Martin’s chief of staff and longtime adviser, who is equally important, but with less profile.
But it is Coveney, not Carroll, who leads the Fine Gael team. Coveney is a workhorse and masters detail, but he has raised Green hackles by delivering what they see as lectures about the challenges ahead.
Governments must deal with the realities, not with what they would like, he has said. Some in the room believe they are being told to grow up. It is not Coveney’s intention, but it has not gone down well.
One such example occurred over legislation to ban the importation of Israeli goods produced in the occupied-Palestinian territories. Fianna Fáil and the Greens backed a ban last year, but Fine Gael vetoed it.
Fianna Fáil and the Greens want it in the next programme; Coveney resisted, strongly, insisting that the bill is illegal under EU law. No agreement was possible; it was kicked upstairs to the leaders. It won’t be, one insider says, in the top 20 issues on the “snag list”; but it does illustrate the difficulty of the process.
A solution to the deficit reduction row was outlined by Varadkar and Eamon Ryan in the Dáil this week
Despite the reservations all three parties have about the process, it is moving inexorably towards the conclusion of an agreement that all three will try to sell to their respective memberships.
All will encounter internal opposition and, quite simply, nobody knows if the Green Party can muster a two-thirds majority in favour of anything.
But with the Green party membership reckoned by all parties to be the most unpredictable element of the process, a plethora of compromises agreed at leader level, and sprung on the party at the last minute, holds obvious dangers.
A solution to the deficit reduction row was outlined by Varadkar and Eamon Ryan in the Dáil this week: borrowing in first half of the government; deficit reduction in the second. Some Greens, however, muttered that this clashes with party policy.
Nobody expects the talks to collapse, but the timeframe for a deal slips all the time: from June, to early June, to mid-June. Voting by party members will take another fortnight.
“Everyone knows where the landing ground is on the big issues,” says one insider. But it may take some time to get there.