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Inside Politics: The government talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil teams were a leak-free zone

A new government will be radically different from anything we have seen in the State

A new government will be radically different from anything we have seen in the State

 

The old joke goes that the best way of spreading a story is to tell a politician a secret. Like journalists, many of the political class are terrible gossips. They want to keep the information tight, but they just can’t help themselves from spilling the news.

For example, parliamentary party meetings are supposed to be confidential. However, the advent of digital messaging has meant that every word, every row, every nuance is being reported on almost as soon as it happens.

The exception that proves the rule: Sinn Féin, which prides itself on keeping its information hermetically sealed. The effect is mistrust and cynicism about its true motives.

Unusually, the two main parties have belatedly followed Sinn Féin’s lead this week.

After last week’s temper-tantrums between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, both have had a few days to cool their heels and approach the process as adults rather than as rowdy children.

To use the voguish Americanism, both parties “reached out” to each other over the weekend. That manifested itself in an early morning meeting on Saturday between Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael and Jim O’Callaghan of Fianna Fáil.

That led directly to the first session of real and meaningful talks between both parties last night. And, shockingly, neither side divulged, leaked, palmed, or intimated even the teensiest sliver of information about what occurred during the 90-minute encounter between the two teams of four.

Just after 8.45pm, the press offices of both parties sent out statements saying the same thing. The agreed statement reported the meeting had taken place in the Sycamore Room of Government Buildings, had lasted an hour and a half, and had been “constructive and cordial”.

Other than that, it was information lockdown. “It is to respect the process,” said one high-level source.

The teams will meet again today and presumably every day this week. If they manage to keep up the new-found omerta, it will be hard to gauge what progress, if any, is made.

The first real indication will be on Thursday when the Dáil resumes for the third vote on the nomination of taoiseach. It is very unlikely that matters will be sorted by then (besides, there is still loads of stuff to be squared off with Independents, none of whom have plumped for a party yet).

But at least there will be fair indication on what progress has been made and perhaps a hint on when the historic new arrangement can become a reality.

Here’s our report on it.

The best of the rest?

The new government, if it is formed, will be radically different from anything we have seen in the State, including the inter-party governments of the 1940s and 1950s with their multiplicity of independents and smaller parties.

Even then, a majority was only a hair’s breadth away. Now, it’s an ocean away.

There is no doubt that the business of politics as we know it in Ireland will be markedly difficult.

Labour introduced the device of the Economic Management Council (EMC) to equalise power, especially on economic matters, and ensure that not all the big financial decisions rested with the bigger party.

What we will see now is a more elaborate version of that, extended right across parliament. For one, every major (and contentious) policy or piece of legislation will have to be scrutinised by Fianna Fáil beforehand.

What’s more, you will see a big shift in the way parliament operates. There will be a move away from an almost-total reliance on plenary sessions in the Dáil. The reforms that are proposed envisage committees having new powers.

For example, an all-party budget committee would vet and approve major budgetary steps. Housing policy and action would be determined by a housing committee. It is possible that the over-arching strategy for health for the next decade might not originate from the Department of Health but from a special committee.

In effect, the Dáil and committees will become the new Economic Management Council.

It will pose a headache for the true Opposition parties. Sinn Féin has already taken a fair deal of flak for its decision not to engage. It says it will hold the government to account, but it will have to be careful not to be seen to be opposing everything. That will lead to charges of cynicism or opportunism that may touch on its credibility.

For the Alphabet Alliance, no such subtleties apply. All-out attack will be its modus operandi.

Of the rest, the Social Democrats ruled themselves out too early and might just parlay their way back in a little. The Greens will also need to define what part they can play.

My own view is that Labour’s best chance is in opposition, despite the likelihood of it being crowded out (and drowned out) by other parties.

My colleague Pat Leahy has a very interesting take on Joan Burton’s intentions on leadership.