Aoife Moore: From pragmatism to pizza ... the story of government formation

Aoife Moore: From pragmatism to pizza ... the story of government formation

On May 11, talks to form a new coalition government began in the aftermath of the election on February 8, when no party received the 80 seats needed for a Dáil majority.

Old rivals Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the second most surprising electoral success story of the election, the Green Party, entered marathon talks, which saw discussions run for five weeks — sometimes lasting till 4am — with arguments, tensions, a leadership challenge, and a debate about pineapple on pizza, before a draft programme for government agreed last week.

Agriculture House on Kildare Street was the chosen venue for the talks, due to its proximity to the Dáil, its large rooms to facilitate social distancing, and its amenities — basically, a kitchen complete with dishwasher and tea and coffee facilities to keep teams sustained.

The Monday session kicked off with justice in which the Green Party gained a significant early win on the ending of the current system of Direct Provision. However, this success was to be short-lived.

"In health, we did well, there was broad agreement there because we all had agreed on Sláintecare," a senior talks source said.

"It was after that everything started to fray."

When asked if one day was worse than another, a Green TD said: "It's all been horrendous".

The leadership challenge

Aoife Moore: From pragmatism to pizza ... the story of government formation
Green Party candidates Catherine Martin Deputy leader Eamon Ryan Leader during the Green Party general election campaign launch on Merrion Square,Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins
On June 6, midway through the negotiations, Green deputy leader Catherine Martin confirmed that she would contest Eamon Ryan for the leadership of the party. Although Leinster House was a-buzz with the news, negotiators from the other parties felt it wasn't their place to mention the news.

"That definitely did kind of discombobulate people, it was awkward and while the Greens were trying to say it didn't matter, it did, because automatically you could see the split, with people loyal to Eamon and Catherine respectively, then we're thinking 'who will we be dealing with in the leadership role in the future?'," a senior talks source said.

"Everybody was talking about it outside of the meetings, but it wasn't in anyone's interest to bring it up. We felt like, 'what signal is this sending to people?' We felt sorry for Eamon about it, Catherine made a comment she wouldn't let it interfere and that was all that was said."

The longest days

Aoife Moore: From pragmatism to pizza ... the story of government formation
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, arrives at Government Buildings to discuss outstanding issues, with leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. -Niall Carson/PA Wire-

On June 11, another outside Green Party issue infiltrated talks. Leader Eamon Ryan while describing the racist abuse suffered by people of colour here, repeated a racial slur. Almost immediately, outrage spread across social media, and while already facing a leadership challenge, Eamon Ryan's position was called into question by some of his own councilors.

The 16-hour day of negotiations was described as "awkward and tense" from those present, as Mr Ryan had been with the other parties while the crisis developed.

Ms Martin and Mr Ryan saw each other shortly after, and she told him she "was appalled, to his face" but knew his intention was not malicious.

None of the Green Party TDs spoke openly in support of Mr Ryan in the following hours, bringing tensions in the negotiating room to a low simmer.

"Everyone knew about it, it never came up in the plenary sessions, but the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil teams observed that no one supported him publicly, we did comment on that. We thought that was unfair and it was talked about between our teams," a senior source added.

Ms Martin did tweet her support for the leader 36 hours later, saying since that she "didn't have the time to construct a tweet" as she was committed to government negotiations.

The personalities

Aoife Moore: From pragmatism to pizza ... the story of government formation
Finance Spokesperson Michael McGrath TD, Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin as he speaks to the media at Leinster House Dublin. Pic: Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos

Previous relationships were thin on the ground between the Green TDs and the civil war party representatives due to their new status. However, Eamon Ryan and Micheal Martin's previous friendship was noted by some as an advantage to the talks. While his own Green TDs felt at times that Mr Ryan was easily talked around by his colleague, which often led to a feeling Green policies were not being fought for hard enough due to Ryan's pragmatic personality.

"We got the feeling Eamon would just roll over, he kept saying that once we got into government we could make changes but we had to be in government," a Green TD said.

Mr Ryan stayed out of talks for the most part, according to one source, but did appear in negotiations on the just transition for over two hours in which he gave a "long monologue" and transport.

"He would pop in now and again every so often to say hello to everyone, that's just the kind of person he is."

His finance spokeswoman, Neasa Hourigan, was seen as a confident negotiator during the talks, but her initial reluctance to enter negotiations often came to the fore.

"You could see at times Neasa was very reluctant, she fundamentally disagreed with Fine Gael's economic principles, and after five weeks you could tell she was worn down," one source said.

"She was fighting with herself being there, she was in turmoil but there was a clear lack of interest from two or three others from her party too."

The Green Party says that disinterest wasn't one way, with multiple sources confirming that it was "touch and go" on whether Fine Gael representatives had even read the briefing papers supplied to them by the Greens. With two people observing it was "blatantly obvious" that one minister "hadn't even opened it" before she sat down.

As the weeks went on, a great deal of respect was gained between the group, and learning about respective personalities became an essential negotiating tool.

"They knew who to go to for flexibility after a while," a party source said.

"Transport took a long time, Barry (Cowen) was very good, bringing everyone to our way of thinking," a Fianna Fáil source said.

"He was an honest broker in relation to that portfolio."

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and likely next Minister for Public Expenditure Micheal McGrath's long working relationship meant the two were often in agreement on the economy and the deficit, while "Catherine Martin got on with most people, there was no big personality clash".

A Fine Gael source added: "Catherine was there to prove her bona fides because she had voted against the talks, she kept repeating that she was there in good faith.

"People were suspicious when she was added but she did try and get people together, at the deputy leader clearinghouse she was able to get people to compromise before issues went to the leader, but it took about two weeks for the parties to really trust she was genuine.

"The thing about the Greens, even when they disagree, they're all very nice and polite. Simon (Coveney) gets on with most people when he's getting his own way, but Paschcal is the toughest when it comes to negotiating, people perk up and listen. Marc (Ó Cathasaigh) chaired a lot of the plenaries, and with 15 people around the table, it's not easy to stay focused but he could command a room."

Pizza

Aoife Moore: From pragmatism to pizza ... the story of government formation

In the final week of the negotiations, talks often went on till 1am every night, with TDs tired and irritable and an increasing pressure building to get the deal over the line. The Offences Against the State Act is about to run out at month's end, and it was hammered home to the teams that this could not be allowed to happen.

For sustenance, pizzas were ordered, but you had to act fast.

"We'd order just a load of different pizzas with different toppings. Depending on what room or discussion you were in and if it went over, you mightn't have been lucky enough to get any. The final few nights, they were gone in about eight seconds — some nights people didn't get any by the time their discussion was over," a source said.

A source incorrectly recalled to the Irish Examiner that Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe requested pineapple on a pizza during negotiations. Mr Donohoe has confirmed through a spokesperson he did not request that pizza, and is “a ‘New Yorker Pizza’ kind of guy” with bacon, chicken and barbecue sauce.We apologise to Mr Donohoe for any offence caused.

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