FG and FF show willingness to talk as Trinity provides ‘neutral territory’

Two parties meet away from the ‘goldfish bowl’ of Leinster House

The talks taking place in Trinity College are not the first political discussions of national importance the campus has hosted.

Seán Barrett, seeking to retain his Seanad seat on the Trinity panel, yesterday spoke of the Irish Convention held in Trinity’s Regent House.

Taking place between July 1917 and March 1918, it was an effort to try to settle some form of self-government for Ireland in the aftermath of the Rising.

Home Rule advocates saw it as their last chance to salvage their work of decades; Ulster Unionists attended to protect the interests of the North and Sinn Féin boycotted it because its outcome would keep Ireland within the British empire.

Acoustics

Barrett cited a quote from the late historian RB McDowell on the convention: “Not only were the two sides not interested in talking to each other, but the acoustics were appalling.”

We cannot speak for the acoustics of the provost's house, the venue for discussions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but at least both sides have shown a willingness to talk.

Following in the footsteps of Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, who was provost when the Irish Convention began, provost Patrick Prendergast is hosting political talks that will have a bearing on the nation's future.

Despite what many in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may think of the historic nature of their discussions, they are not quite of the same magnitude as those hosted by Mahaffy almost a century ago.

But what made the two parties decamp from their previous venue of Government Buildings to the library of the provost’s house?

Fine Gael said the idea came from Fianna Fáil, claiming Micheál Martin’s party did not want to be on acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s “turf” of Government Buildings. The term “neutral territory” has been used, but Fianna Fáil disputes this.

‘Goldfish bowl’

“Both teams wanted to be away from the goldfish bowl of Leinster House and Government Buildings to try and make some progress,” said a Fianna Fáil spokesman.

Even if the “neutral venue” idea is true, there is of also truth to the Fianna Fáil position. Previously, the Fianna Fáil team had to walk through Leinster House to get to Government Buildings, crossing a bridge linking the two buildings en route.

Not an arduous task, but their path was akin to an obstacle course, even though the impediments to smooth passage were curious journalists or backbenchers.

The Fianna Fáil team had taken to moving in pack formation and eating together in the canteen, lest they be caught and drilled for information.

The idea was floated for a change of scenery, although most venues across the city centre were either booked up or too expensive.

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, a Trinity graduate, spoke to contacts in his alma mater and they were happy to facilitate the process.

Government formation

The call from Fine Gael on Friday night was accompanied by a request for a paper on government formation to inform the discussions.

With the assistance of emeritus professor Michael Marsh, Gail McElroy, professor of political science, duly obliged.

Other requests are understood to have been simple: tea, coffee and wifi.

The room includes portraits of former provosts and, according to Barrett, one of Edmund Burke, whose quotes consistently adorn Irish political discourse.

One of the only stipulations insisted upon by Trinity is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael vacate the premises by 9pm each evening.

It is a house, after all, and it certainly wouldn’t be decent to outstay one’s welcome.