Everything was on track. The mood music was good. Government formation negotiators were pointing towards a weekend deal in the making. Then talks broke down again yesterday evening as a further standoff ensued between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, writes Juno McEnroe
Overnight, both teams had sought “technical” advice from experts, including on what compromise could be agreed on the impasse over water charges, the main stumbling block to a deal.
A question was how much in “generous” allowances could be afforded from Fine Gael’s point of view, to appease Fianna Fáil demands. Moreover, advice was needed on how meters might help homeowners apparently ‘beat’ the charge by conserving water. But this requires an actual meter.
From Fianna Fáil’s side though, the key issue was whether charges can be suspended for a lengthy period, possibly up to five years or at least until the next general election.
The experts came back, the negotiations resumed. All looked sunny and rosey as both teams exited Trinity College Dublin and headed to a nearby building to trawl through their policy differences.
There were other issues to negotiate. But there was also a clear optimism in the air, as acting health minister Leo Varadkar told waiting reporters earlier in the morning, that he was “cautiously optimistic” about a deal on the weekend. Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney had already said on Thursday that he hoped talks could be wrapped up by tomorrow.
But behind the scenes, Fianna Fáil were holding their position on the need to suspend water charges. Meath TD Thomas Byrne told RTÉ earlier in the day it was “doubtful” an agreement could be reached if Fine Gael did not suspend charges for five years, as his party demanded in its election manifesto.
Lead party negotiator Michael McGrath was equally cautious. The Cork South Central TD was adamant that a U-turn by his party on its election promise would not be acceptable to Fianna Fáil.
“We as a party are trying to rebuild trust in politics, rebuild trust with the party,” he said. “We’re not in the business of saying one thing before the election, and doing something fundamentally different after the election.”
Clearly, Fianna Fáil are anticipating any political pressure if they cannot get enough movement on freezing water charges and scrapping Irish Water.
Already, anti-water TDs were out on the plinth in Leinster House yesterday outlining a motion, agreed by 39 TDs, to abolish charges. It has been signed by Sinn Fein, the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit group, Independents-4Change, the Social Democrats, and Independents.
Fianna Fáil know they will get hammered during this Dáil if they cannot get their way on water charges.
It now seems that whatever advice was brought back into the negotiating room that this triggered a fresh standoff in the talks. Instead of tidying up a deal for a fresh vote for Taoiseach next week, both teams broke off and said they would have to seek the advice of their leaders.
Announcing the fresh deadlock, Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan said there were issues now after over two weeks of talks that could not be resolved.
“We’ve now reached a situation where there are a number of issues in respect of which we can’t reach agreement,” he said.
The party negotiator though also revealed that it was not just the thorny issue of water charges now which could not be resolved.
“The issues involve a variety of matters in the area of housing, education, rural affairs and indeed water.”
Both sides agree that nothing is insurmountable. But as the days roll on, the long- term viability of a minority government even lasting a short time is increasingly in doubt.
Maybe both sides are setting the scene for a final push across the line, in case party hardliners object to compromises. The coming days will tell. But there are surely only a few left before time runs out.
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