For a party criticised for shooting itself in the foot throughout the election, it is more than a little ironic that Fine Gael now appears set on shooting itself in the back.
A full 60 days after the February 26 vote, three weeks into “historic” talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and after 100 hours of separate discussions with Independents, Enda Kenny has made a significant, perhaps game-changing, concession to Micheál Martin.
In return for supporting — or to use Fianna Fáil’s own word, ‘facilitating’, because no-one could interpret the party’s actions in recent days as support — a Fine Gael-led minority government, Mr Kenny has told his rival he will agree to suspend water charges for six to nine months.
The move has been made in a last-ditch bid to resolve the political stalemate hamstringing the country and comes with two vital caveats, namely water charges will only be suspended while an independent commission examines the issue, and only if both parties agree to reintroduce a charges system once the review concludes.
For Mr Kenny and his negotiating team of Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald, and Paschal Donohoe, the offer is designed to end the stand-off and is the only way to prevent a second election.
However, while the Taoiseach and his negotiators’ eyes may have been understandably on the water charges gun Mr Martin has pointed at their heads when they outlined the situation, they should perhaps have thought a little harder about whether a similar target is now being placed on their back by their backbench colleagues.
Speaking last night as talks ended for another day, a series of Fine Gael TDs said they cannot support any deal that will see a lengthy suspension of charges.
Regardless of what way it is dressed up, a fees freeze for any significant period of time will effectively spell the end of the regime, they say, something they can simply not abide after wading through the election with the policy repeatedly plunging them into arguments they fought hard to win.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner last night, Wexford TD Michael D’Arcy said if a suspension as long as what is being suggested is put in place, “that’s the end of Irish Water”, adding “we shouldn’t take people for fools”.
He said the parliamentary party of TDs and senators met a fortnight ago to unanimously re-affirm its position on water charges — namely, that they were not going anywhere — and to change direction now simply because that is the way the wind is blowing means backbenchers’ views are being ignored for the sake of power.
Kildare South TD Martin Heydon was similarly vocal, saying any suspension deal would be tantamount to the party turning its back on candidates “who took a lot of punishment”, while similar views were expressed by Regina Doherty, Andrew Doyle, and Brendan Griffin.
Despite other colleagues, including taoiseach-nominee addict Noel Rock and Fine Gael chair Catherine Byrne, saying some form of deal was always inevitable, the reality is the guns, never mind the knives, will be out for Mr Kenny and his negotiating team at their next parliamentary party meeting, either today or tomorrow.
And what makes it worse is that the rock-and-a-hard-place situation Fine Gael’s top brass now finds itself in has seemingly not calmed the would-be assassin who continues to have it in its sights. Gun still firmly at Mr Kenny’s temple, Mr Martin’s negotiating team of Barry Cowen, Michael McGrath, Jim O Callaghan, and Charlie McConalogue last night made it clear the offer to suspend charges for two years is not enough.
“We are true to our commitments and our manifesto across a range of issues, including the one you have mentioned [suspending water charges for five years],” Mr Cowen told reporters as he left the Trinity College talks, with colleagues later clarifying no counter-offer will be put forward today. Asked about his leader’s suggestion the odds of a deal are in the balance, he agreed “there’s still a 50/50 chance”.
Given the Fine Gael backbench anger the latest attempt at a deal has caused, those 50/50 odds could just as easily relate to who shoots the Taoiseach first — Fianna Fáil or the grass-roots on his own side.
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