Independent TD Mattie McGrath explains why he took part in talks with Fine Gael and why the inability of the big parties to talk to each other is a stumbling point.
ONE thing alone was certain, what happened last week was going to be unlike anything we had previously experienced in our collective political lives.
Dubbed with various titles, the Rural Alliance, the Rural Five (consisting of Noel Grealish, Denis Naughten, Dr Michael Harty, and Michael Collins and I) we had been drawn together by a shared determination to articulate and if possible resolve the problems besetting those parts of the country which exist past the Red Cow Inn.
So on the morning of Monday, March 21, we regrouped in the Dáil canteen to gather our thoughts and outline our approach to the impending meeting in Government Buildings.
Most of our group were veterans of the to-ing and fro-ing that occurs at all levels of political life, but this was something entirely different. Each of us was acutely aware that what was about to happen constituted a significant political risk.
But since we had each surveyed with increasing alarm the stalemate and downright paralysis of the fortnight since the general election, something had to be done. A move had to be made to force the agenda forward.
Timidity and questionable abstentions by a raft of ‘perpetual protest’ colleagues was going to do nothing to address the challenges that existed.
The initial meeting with the Fine Gael negotiating team which consisted of acting Taoiseach Kenny, acting ministers Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney, Simon Harris and Deputy Sean Coyne was, for all its importance, understated and even a little muted.
There was certainly frankness and even bluntness on both sides of the table; yet overall it was marked by what seemed like a genuine openness to our vision of political partnership.
Business as usual it most certainly was not.
We returned later in the week to Government Buildings along with a significant cohort of our fellow Independents and the Green Party deputies.
As we each took our seats around the table, I think most of us were struck by a sense of how bizarre this was. Irish political life had seen nothing like this since the foundation of the State in terms of the fragmentation of the major political Parties.
The castigated and derided “parish pump” Independent TDs were attempting to give a lesson in political maturity to a system that was cracked asunder by the sovereign vote of the people.
What became increasingly apparent as the main and breakout meetings progressed was the scale of the gulf to be crossed if we were to emerge out of this process with anything like a feasible road map forward.
At every turn, despite the genuine goodwill and good faith of the participants involved, the central unavoidable fact of basic voting arithmetic hung over the process.
Even with unanimous support from the participants involved would anything really change with respect to securing a Dáil majority?
The absence of Fianna Fáil and the inability of most of us to comprehend why the leaders of the two main parties had not talked stalked the room and even led to whispered concerns about whether we were being used as fodder in some as yet unrevealed larger backroom strategy.
At the human level each of us had to make on the spot calculations, weighing and balancing if we could at the end of it all accept and sign off on something akin to a programme for government.
Whatever the reality inside the room, the reality outside of it (homelessness-the A&E crisis-distressed mortgages —the decimation of rural Ireland) continued to shape the agenda and focus our minds. Many of us were being phoned and emailed daily by angry and frustrated constituents who on the one hand felt betrayed by our participation and on the other hand frustrated at the slowness of the process.
But what was the alternative — to endorse political paralysis and set the scene for a return to the self-same people in another wasteful general election?
As the hours, days, and oftentimes tedious parsing of documents have moved on, I am very unsure about whether anything concrete will result in terms of a document we can all sign off on and agree to support.
The outcome of this week’s talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail has yet to be revealed. While the fact that they have only begun may be ‘politically’ understandable it is also an indictment of the immaturity of our system.
It signals a gnawing fear that the entrenched “party first” view still is alive and well amid the rarefied air of a supposedly reformed Oireachtas.
I attended the talks because I want to put the people first. It really is that uncomplicated.
Holding my nose and pretending I can make a virtue out of endless protest simply will not cut it when I meet a constituent on the verge of suicide or yet another elderly person on a hospital trolley. This is not a game. It is time to move beyond the zero sum politics that brought us to this impasse.
It is time we acted in the national interest and not just talked it up as the default position of no real merit or advantage when things get tough.
It is time to move on. It is time to get the work done.
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