We are now, as one TD said, in “crunch time” in government formation talks.
Many of the more complicated issues — housing, agriculture, and emissions — had been moved back to allow negotiations be held against a backdrop of cohesion and with the programme for government in shape to be completed. But with the so-called easier negotiations having taken place, there is still much work to be done, especially with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s “hard deadline” of the end of June now looming into view.
Over the weekend, TDs remained “optimistic” that a deal could be done, but that optimism has waned somewhat as greater gaps in the positions of all three parties have appeared. Sources say there is no reason to believe a deal won’t be agreed, but the time to find a balanced programme, that will be passed by all three memberships, is running out. TDs and officials due to attend the talks are now preparing for “a long week” of discussion of issues that would have been difficult even before a global pandemic sent shockwaves through our economy.
It is now clear that the differences between the parties are not just differences of opinion on the minutiae of policy: There are fundamental ideological differences between all three parties.
Nowhere are these fault lines more clearly crystallised than in the Green Party’s suggestion of a cap on the profits of private developers building on public land. Many will see the idea as perfectly reasonable — if the land belongs to the State, it isn’t outlandish to suggest that whatever project is built comes at a set value for money.
However, the idea is anathema to some in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
This issue alone is not an insurmountable gap between the parties, but, at its core, it underlines that these parties are trying to reach a consensus when their manifestos, approaches, and personalities differ hugely in places.
There is some suggestion that the flare-ups of tension over the long weekend could be familiarity breeding contempt — these long negotiations have been stilted because of the two-hour limit on meetings. Those hopeful of seeing a deal agreed will remain so, but comments from Fine Gael figures don’t inspire confidence.
“There is no way this can work: The Greens aren’t up to it,” one minister told the Irish Examiner.
“I can’t really talk about the Greens without trashing them,” said another.
That kind of language isn’t uncommon in politics. Indeed, it is more polite than some of the language that is commonly used. However, it is also not the kind of language politicians use about people with whom they are expected to lead a country for the next five years.
That the parties differ is not revelatory. Their differences were interrogated in a general election in February.
But now those differences have been brought into sharp focus and they could prove to be the difference between a new government and a second election.