DANIEL MCCONNELL: Ministers’ confidence in supply of tea and biscuits

“Ah, we are not doing much, only seeking to determine the future course of our country” — a quip from one senior politician when asked how the talks have been going, amid chatter that the two sides are simply sitting around drinking tea all day. The routine has become the same, writes Daniel McConnell.

They exit the back of Leinster House and walk up the narrow alleyway towards the back of Agriculture House, primarily to avoid the media around the front on Kildare St.

They ascend the stairs to the second floor to one of two rooms that have been set aside for the purpose of the talks aimed at extending the life of the fragile minority Fine Gael government.

The meetings are being held on the same floor where the National Emergency Co-ordination Committee is located.

The Fianna Fáil team, made up of deputy leader Dara Calleary; finance spokesman Michael McGrath; Brexit spokeswoman Lisa Chambers; and agriculture spokesman Charlie McConologue, as well as Micheál Martin’s chef-de-cabinet, Deirdre Gillane.

The Fine Gael team, made up of Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe; Tánaiste Simon Coveney; Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty; and party chairman Martin Heydon; along with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s chief of staff Brian Murphy.

The sides first met on October 25 in room 741 in Leinster House, a small nondescript space situated right at the bridge between the Dáil and Government Buildings, but it was deemed too small and not suitable for the sensitive nature of the talks.

An early slip-up by Fine Gael threatened to derail the process before it even began. That afternoon, the party’s press office issued a notice that its team would be out on the plinth to discuss the day’s progress, only to be cancelled a short time later.

Fianna Fáil’s Gillane and Martin objected, saying to do so would undermine trust and it was made clear that no briefings should occur if the talks were to succeed.

A short time later, a joint statement was issued saying “it was a good, constructive first meeting” and noting that both parties have agreed a schedule for next week.

“Both parties agreed not to do media doorsteps after meetings,” the statement from a chastened Fine Gael press office read.

Given the unhappiness with the original venue, by the times the sides met again, the rooms in “Ag House” were deemed far more appropriate and have proved satisfactory.

Every day, talks have happened, poor quality tea and coffee is laid out for the teams along with basic biscuits, which primarily remain untouched. “Some are trying to be good, others found them disgusting,” was how one source put it.

The room in which the talks have taken place is a functional, glass-walled space which overlooks the back of the Department of Finance on Merrion St.

While Fine Gael is seeking a two-year extension to the agreement with an agreed election date in 2020, Fianna Fáil has been reluctant to accept that — with the outcome of the review to inform the progress of negotiations.

Fianna Fáil has insisted on calling the process so far “a review of the three budgets already passed” as opposed to “talks looking to the future”.

Meetings between the sides have not been chaired by anyone and have so far been “calm, professional and cordial”. However, both teams have said the tone has been “good humoured” at times with Tuesday’s Brexit chaos bringing some hilarity to the room.

The issues of health and housing have dominated and at times the discussions have been described as being of a “highly technical nature”.

“We are approaching it in good faith,” said one source.

At the beginning, the two sides exchanged papers relating to their positions on issues from health to justice, from education to housing.

However, a critical decision was taken not to get into those first in a bid to build trust between the sides.

“We haven’t gotten to the two papers which were exchanged. We didn’t want to start the process with an argument about what has and hasn’t been done,” a source said.

Asked to describe the tone and tenor of exchanges so far, both sides have been fairly consistent in their views.

“What is absent is the pantomime of the Dáil chamber, which is a theatre. These have been constructive discussions largely in the space of reviewing the delivery of matters,” said one.

This week, the sides met on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, having met for five hours the Thursday before during the recess.

That was unusual as the teams are now mostly engaging in two-hour sessions, breaking for tea and then going back in.

“You grab a soup and sandwich before you go in,” said one weary source.

This week, senior officials from the departments of Health and Housing, including secretaries general, Jim Breslin and John McCarthy, have been in the talks and delivered highly detailed briefings to both sides.

It has emerged that they have at times, broken off with one side and then the other, when specific details have been sought.

“This part of it is getting the senior officials to give us a direct briefing, then they leave, then we are in the room with officials then it is the other side’s turn,” one source said.

The discussions on health have proved to be far more time-consuming than what was expected.

“It is like peeling off a plaster and discovering the wound is worse than feared. Each question raises more questions and it is taking time,” said one source.

“If there are any sensitive areas, and health and housing certainly are, we are trying to lift the bonnet and take a look at what the picture,” said another.

On Thursday, the issue of housing came to the fore with Fianna Fáil demanding clarity as to why there has been such so little progress on bringing voided social housing units back on stream.

Fianna Fáil have sought to hone in on the promise in the 2016 deal to “significantly increase and expedite the delivery of social housing units, remove barriers to private housing supply and initiate an affordable housing scheme”.

“In terms of a lack of delivery, that is what we are trying to do is examining why things are so slow, like in housing the issue of voids, so we are going back again and again on things.

“Obviously, civil servants will always have more details as to why things are not moving fast enough and they are objective when stating facts,” a source said.

From the Fianna Fáil side, while not in government, they are not in control of the figures and this process allows them be “as forensic as you can be from opposition”.

What is clear from both camps is that the independence of the civil service is being respected and they are not being pulled into any sort of political discussions.

While Gillane and Murphy are there to support their political colleagues, predictably Donohoe and Coveney have been most active on the Fine Gael side, with Calleary and McGrath the most vocal on the other.

However, the others too have all played their part and not been afraid to get stuck in on their areas of concern.

At the end of most days, each team withdraws to debrief on the day’s talks. Fine Gael regroups back in Government Buildings while the Fianna Fáilers have retreated back to their offices in LH2000, the newer block of offices within Leinster House.

Next week, talks are to focus on the thorny issues of justice, finance, and education, and much attention is being paid to the Smyth audit on the National Broadband process, which was ordered after Denis Naughten’s resignation.

So far, so good, is the consensus mood, it appears. Both know this cannot go on forever, but neither side appears desperate to call a halt to it anytime soon, especially in light of the Brexit uncertainty.

Stormier seas lie ahead.

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