Daniel McConnell: Political parties struggling to leave baggage behind

As the sun split the stones yesterday, teams from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party trundled into Agriculture House on Dublin’s Kildare St to begin the fourth week of talks.
Daniel McConnell: Political parties struggling to leave baggage behind
An Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, has been leading Fine Gael's negotiation team.

As the sun split the stones yesterday, teams from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party trundled into Agriculture House on Dublin’s Kildare St to begin the fourth week of talks.

They met knowing time and patience is running short.

Progress has been painfully slow with suggestions over the weekend that the process is derailing somewhat.

The mood going in was not good. “People are pissed off with how long it is taking,” said one source.

“We are going into week four now and people are getting fed up of the whole thing.

"It is wearing on people. In any negotiation, you get to that stage and that is where we are,” said another source.

Deep distrust

What is patently clear is that underpinning the talks process is a deep sense of mistrust between the parties.

“There has been sniping aplenty to be fair,” said one Fine Gael source.

“Fianna Fáil can’t seem to keep their mouths shut and are briefing on things in a way to either blow them out of proportion or to be overly optimistic.”

“The Greens are unrealistic in their demands, Fine Gael are disinterested and Fianna Fáil are overly desperate in their desire to make it work,” was the pithy summation of the mood as to how each side sees each other from one negotiator.

These reports of Fianna Fáil being “overly desperate” were seen as coming from Fine Gael and have been sharply rejected as “total bullshit”.

Fianna Fáil sees Fine Gael as wanting everything to remain the same, as if it won a thumping, large majority.

“Fine Gael is of the view that there doesn’t need to be any change, so we are kicking against that a good bit,” one source said.

“John Halligan summed it up best — we all can’t stand each other, but we’ve got to try and make this work,” said

another.

Key players

Fine Gael is led in the negotiations by Simon Coveney who, for all of his verbosity, is a dedicated commander and is committed to making the process work, even if the same cannot be said for others on his side of the table.

John Carroll, a special adviser from the Department of An Taoiseach, has been “very active — too active, you might say” according to sources.

Paschal Donohoe, the finance minister has sought to walk the line in keeping a prudent eye on the money while seeking to address the political realities thrown up by this process.

Fianna Fáil deputy leader Dara Calleary
Fianna Fáil deputy leader Dara Calleary

Coveney’s desire to make this process work has been matched, according to sources, by his opposite number Dara Calleary, who is battling significant internal disquiet about his party’s participation in the talks.

His money man, Michael McGrath has been “in lockstep” with Donohoe about the financial approach, hinting to many that the pair will work together when they are in finance.

Deirdre Gillane, Micheál Martin’s no-nonsense chef de cabinet is a stoic if imposing presence in the room and nothing gets through without her approval, sources say.

For the Greens, Catherine Martin is the team lead and is supported primarily by Neasa Hourigan, a formidable and doughty fighter in her own right who has clashed with Donohoe and McGrath.

Sources have said she is “hyper-alert” to being forced into backing an austerity programme, which had such a devastating impact on her party 10 years ago.

Martin is a quiet but committed operator, but her decision to challenge for her own party leadership has de-stabilised the talks.

“It is difficult, as we don’t know who is with Eamon Ryan and who is not. You go into negotiations and you are asking yourself: ‘Which wing are we dealing with?’ ” said one source.

Frrustrating sessions

The parties have been using the room normally occupied by the National Emergency Coordination Team during major weather episodes because it is large enough to facilitate socially distanced meetings.

The benefit of Ag House is that it is accessible from the Leinster House complex, enabling the teams to bypass awaiting media, keen to know the latest.

Sessions are being kept to just two hours, which is becoming a major impediment to progress, “especially when Simon Coveney feels the need to speak at every turn”, one negotiator quipped yesterday.

With such restrictions in place, sessions on different areas take place at the same time.

As Joe O’Brien of the Green Party said, there has been a lot of agreement among parties involved in government formation talks, but they have been dealing with a lot of the easier issues and there are stickier issues to deal with yet.

“That is true — we have signed off on some easier stuff like Northern Ireland, Brexit, justice largely. The most difficult days lie ahead this week,” said one source.

Talks on different subjects are happening in parallel, involving policy spokespeople and key negotiators.

What happens then is that matters are brought back to so-called “plenary sessions” involving the core negotiators and officials.

Bumps in the road

Where agreement cannot be reached, the team leaders — Simon Coveney, Dara Calleary, and Catherine Martin — will seek to work through them.

Green Party deputy leader, Catherine Martin
Green Party deputy leader, Catherine Martin

Where that has not been possible, matters are “kicked up” to the party leaders to try to resolve.

Such issues, as of now, including housing, direct provision, and transport remain unresolved and will end up for the leaders to deal with.

“The big problem is that kicking too many issues up to the leaders undermines the work we have been doing. But the gaps remain big on some issues,” said one source.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil sources have said the sessions on transport proved to be “very difficult” because of Green demands to radically reduce the budget for road building and maintenance to allow greater investment in public transport.

“It is not that public transport is the issue, it is what they want to do in cutting the road budget would make it unmanageable and undeliverable, even in terms of road maintenance.

"So, it is the practicalities that aren’t adding up. It can be made add up, but do the practicalities make up,” a source said.

The parties will, for the first time today, grapple with the highly contentious area of agriculture, amid commitments to reduce carbon emissions by 7% a year.

“A lot of work has gone in the past two weeks in trying to address the 7% thing. So, Jack Chambers, Richard

Bruton, and Brian Leddin have worked hard and should hopefully make things easier,” the source said.

What happens next?

With Leo Varadkar setting a deadline of this Friday for a conclusion, a major plenary session is planned for today to allow the teams to sign off on a lot of work agreed upon.

But hopes of a swift conclusion are minimal.

“This is going nowhere, I guarantee you this thing will collapse because of the Greens,” was the pessimistic conclusion of one minister.

Others are more hopeful, but not by much.

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