Q&A: 'So where are we exactly?' - Government formation talks enter crunch time

We are now over 120 days out from the general election and given everything that has happened in those 17 weeks, February's election feels like a lot longer ago.
Q&A: 'So where are we exactly?' - Government formation talks enter crunch time

- Additionl reporting by Aoife Moore

We are now over 120 days out from the general election and given everything that has happened in those 17 weeks, February's election feels like a lot longer ago.

Yet, despite the Taoiseach's stated hard deadline of the end of this month, no programme for government has been released.

There are still a number of key issues, both of policy and delivery, to be settled and each will require speedy, concise negotiation over the next two days.

Q: So, where exactly are we?

Sources from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party all say that talks are "nearly there" and that a deal should be ready by Wednesday or Thursday. All three sides are said to be "optimistic" of a deal being reached, but some are a little more downbeat on the prospect of a deal being reached which passes the memberships of all three parties.

There are still a number of issues to be ironed out and talks will last "for as long as they last" in order to finalise a deal.

Q: What are the sticking points?

The 7% reduction in emissions, seen as "a red line" issue for the Green Party, has been a major sticking point as all parties agreed on the figure, but now differ on how to reach it. This is, in essence, the key to much of the disagreement - environmental issues. Unsurprisingly, the Greens see environmentalism as a key plank of their negotiating position, but some of their policy ideas have been winced at by the Civil War parties. Transport has caused just such a problem, with walking and cycling funding a serious bone of contention. Eamon Ryan's party want 10% capital funding for each, with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael refusing to budge, saying essential roads infrastructure is locked into the government's plans as contracts have already been signed. One source said "they're not bad ideas in themselves, but they're not realistic at times".

Another issue to be resolved is on housing. The Greens are looking for the Land Development Agency to have the body, which will develop housing on state lands, be much more regulated. However, an idea that the profits of private developers on those lands be capped was given short shrift by the other parties. "An absolute non-starter," one source called it.

Last week, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael appeared ready to agree to give the Greens a “cast-iron guarantee” that the Shannon LNG fossil fuel project will be abandoned, but Green Party sources now say those commitments "would not give confidence required" that the state would not ever import fracked gas again.

Other sticking points are the Fine Gael desire that USC and income tax will not be raised, despite the oncoming economic uncertainty. A source said that the party is "very committed" to this idea but others question if committing to a plan now when the economic landscape could change is wise.

On social protection, the pension age has caused a rift between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The Department of Social Protection says other benefits may have to be cut if the pension age is unchanged in order to ensure there is adequate capital in the pot to keep paying people their pension in the future.

A pension transition payment which would be paid to people turning 66, which has been broadly agreed on in the interim, has made some in Fine Gael nervous, calling it "neither one thing or the other, really".

Q: What's been agreed?

Agreement has been reached in recent days on a mass home retrofitting scheme, which could see over €1 billion spent making private homes more energy-efficient, as well as a commitment that core social welfare rates will be protected by the incoming government. Agreement has also been reached on examination of an auto-enrollment system for pensions, a commission on the future of the media in Ireland and a review of Ireland's capital spending plan, Ireland 2040. It is understood that the agreement around the plan relates solely to reviewing it entirely for now, with no specific plans discussed.

Q: When will we have a government?

All three sides hope to have balloting of members done to enable a Dáil sitting on June 30, to prevent legislation from lapsing.

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