Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to get down to brass tacks on Government’s future
A lot rests on the negotiations which are to begin in a small room in Leinster House
Leinster House: It is understood, although not yet confirmed, that the meeting will be held in the small room usually used by Ministers to host concerned delegations of various hue. It is, after all, neutral territory.
In a small room just off the bridge between Leinster House and Government Buildings, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are today expected to begin the process that will either set the country on the road to a general election or put one off further.
Negotiating teams appointed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin will convene and start their assessment of whether there is still life in the confidence and supply deal that underpins the Fine Gael-led minority Government.
It is understood, although not yet confirmed, that the meeting will be held in the small room usually used by Ministers to host concerned delegations of various hue. It is, after all, neutral territory, and is also the venue where Fine Gael offered Fianna Fáil a grand coalition – with Enda Kenny and Martin rotating as Taoiseach – more than two years ago.
Martin rejected that offer, but now has to judge whether his aim of becoming Taoiseach is best served by an election in the coming months – most likely after the Brexit withdrawal agreement is finalised in March – or by giving Varadkar another year or more in office.
Both sides are approaching the talks with different assumptions. Fianna Fáil, as it has since the agreement was first struck in 2016, has stuck to the letter of the deal. The confidence and supply document allows for a “review” at the end of 2018, although what the review will actually entail is not specified. Fine Gael wants to move as speedily as possible to a renegotiation.
Speaking at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, Varadkar indicated his negotiators would be alert to Fianna Fáil using the process as a stalling tactic.
Fianna Fáil counters that the review must be thorough before any call is made on whether there is a basis to renegotiate and extend. This means, for example, drilling down into how and why certain things have happened, such as repeated overspending in the health services. Fianna Fáil, in this instance, is likely to ask senior HSE and Department of Health officials to come before both teams to explain how this occurred.
Although sources on both sides say the entire process should be wrapped up by early to mid-December, there is no clarity on when the talks will tip from the review to renegotiation phase.
Fine Gael hopes it will be sooner rather than later, and sources said that any “bullshit” – by way of gumming the talks up in process – will be quickly detected.
Brian Murphy, Varadkar’s chief-of-staff, and Deirdre Gillane, Martin’s chef-de-cabinet, have acted as sherpas by agreeing the template – four TDs on each negotiating team, for example – for the talks.
Sessions are expected to work around the day-to-day responsibilities of Ministers and senior TDs. Tánaiste Simon Coveney is leading the Fine Gael delegation but will have to combine his role with the period of intense Brexit diplomacy expected in the weeks ahead.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe is also on the Fine Gael team, as is Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty – trusted by Varadkar and in possession of the skills to needle Fianna Fáil – and Martin Heydon, the chair of the Fine Gael parliamentary party.
The Fianna Fáil delegation is headed by Dara Calleary, the deputy leader who is already on record as saying that an extension – if there is to be one – should be for an extra budget. He is joined by Michael McGrath, the finance spokesman, Lisa Chambers, the Brexit spokeswoman, and Charlie McConalogue, the Donegal TD and agriculture spokesman.
Calleary was previously public expenditure spokesman, and he and McGrath have experience in negotiating budgets with Donohoe. The inclusion of Chambers speaks to the shadow Brexit will throw on the process, and McConalogue, while low key, is close to Martin and other senior figures in the Fianna Fáil leadership.
Both teams are comprised of serious political operators used to high-pressure situations. The mood music in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil of late has been that some sort of deal will be done, although that could change in the weeks ahead.
A lot rests on what is anticipated to begin in room 741 in Leinster House.