I don’t like to describe the past week as a fool’s errand but I am not as optimistic as I would like to have been, writes John Halligan
What a week it has been.
We came from all parts of the country, day after day, in a bid to see if we could help form a government. Many of us left our homes at 5.30am to be in Dublin in time to start the meetings, stayed there for up to 12 hours and more before returning home that night. We, as Independents, repeated that process for several days in a genuine attempt to play our part. But things did not get off to a good start.
The first meeting Independent TDs had was with Enda Kenny and some of his ministers in the Sycamore Room in Government Buildings. I felt it was very unstructured in the beginning, because there wasn’t a chairperson. Enda tried to chair the meeting but we felt that was not acceptable as we wanted to put direct questions to him.
And you can imagine with a load of Independents in the meeting, nobody seemed to know who would speak first, what was going to be presented, or whatever.
I then suggested the Taoiseach should not be chairing the meeting as we wanted to put direct questions to him; so they got in official Lucy McFadden to chair the meeting. The whole thing was a bit chaotic for the first 10-15 minutes.
I sensed there was an unreal urgency on behalf of Fine Gael to get the Independents on board to form a government. I think they felt that, by gathering all of the Independents all together, that would work. I have to say from my side, it was a mistake. You see, I don’t know what way other Independents feel about Irish Water or where they stand on issues such as housing, health, or unemployment.
For example, my view on Irish Water would be different to Michael Fitzmaurice’s, which could be different to Noel Grealish’s. Fianna Fáil want rid of Irish Water but Fine Gael want to keep it. How do you marry all those differing views? We could be three days debating that alone. So I think lots of Independents kept things close to their chest, as they did not want to give away their main bargaining chips. I got the impression many people didn’t want to put forward ideas that would be taken up by everybody else. As a result, the meeting did not allow for free expression from the Independents.
The meetings should have been run differently: We were approached by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about forming a government. What they should have done is present us with a Programme for Government to agree or reject, or tweak etc. We should have identified much earlier the things we had in common and those issues we disagreed on. That would have been preferable for the first meeting. Instead we were presented with a document entitled ‘Policy Areas On a Structural Discussions For a Programme For Government’. It was incredible when you think of it.
For example, in housing, we were presented with different headings A-K, in health it was A-P. In total it added up to 86 discussion points. It was crazy.
From that first meeting with Fine Gael from the outset, we in the Independent Alliance had to tell them on seven occasions when they mentioned their manifesto that their manifesto had been rejected by the people. We had to be blunt about it and we said there was no point of them referring to it, but they had it in their heads that it was the way to go. And things did not improve.
We spent the entirety of the first meeting talking about housing. We had the Secretary General of the Department of the Environment come in and tell us for over an hour why there is a housing crisis. Sure, we knew that already. Any TD worth their salt knows what the problems are so we didn’t need that in my view.
We would have preferred some practical proposals as how to deal with the problem, which eventually did come yesterday.
The lack of reality from the officials’ side was startling. I don’t think they are on top of the problem, if they were, we wouldn’t be in the problems we are in today. Later in the week, we moved onto issues such as mental health, climate change, education, and justice, and yesterday we heard from Michael Noonan on the economy.
But things moved incredibly slowly. Maybe as an amateur, someone who has never negotiated a Programme for Government before, this is the way it goes, but it has been very frustrating. Throughout all of this, there was an uneasy feeling among us about where were Fianna Fáil and would all of this matter in the end. Would all of our time be wasted?
We, as Independents, put pressure on Kenny to contact Micheál Martin, because we all feel, and had been made well aware, that whoever does a deal with the Independents still needs the tacit support of the other main party.
But we were asking ‘Why are they not speaking?’. Some of us felt an annoyance that we were doing our best and talking to all and anyone who wanted to talk but the two big parties were sitting on their arses while we were going the extra mile. It was a major issue that, because of some old Civil War nonsense, they weren’t prepared to speak to each other. That was an annoyance for people. But other reservations existed.
All the Independents also were quietly saying to themselves that we are being asked to prop up Fine Gael, who have been roundly rejected by the people and we have to be very careful on that. Are we going to be sucked into a whole heap of promises, only to find out in a year they can’t be delivered?
Lots of us have been getting it in our constituencies from voters who tell us we did not vote for Fine Gael, so there is a dilemma for many of us.
But there is the other dilemma — that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil weren’t talking to each other. I have said to both parties: “You want us to be in Government but you have not told us fully what part you want us to play.”
Whatever else happens now, at least we as Independent TDs have stepped up to the plate and tried our best in the national interest when others, such as Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats, have refused to play their part and instead chose to sit on the sidelines. That is not being fair to the people of Ireland. I don’t like to describe the past week as a fool’s errand but I am not as optimistic as I would like to have been.
Am I afraid to go into Government? No I am not. But I am also not going to go into Government to sell my soul or make promises I can’t keep.
John Halligan is an Independent TD for Waterford and a member of the Independent Alliance.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved