Saturday, June 30, 2007


AT THE last World Cup, Portugal and the Netherlands met at the knock-out stages of the competition.

I can’t remember which team advanced but one other detail of the game I can clearly recall. It was the most memorable refereeing performances of all time.

Valentin Ivanov was the unfortunate man who officiated at the game (and hasn’t taken charge at this level since). He made a decision that he wasn’t going to take any indiscipline from any side and that he was going to lay down the law from the start.

What transpired was a refereeing disaster of tsunami proportions. Ivanov administered a yellow card early on for a particularly bruising tackle. His mistake was this: the concept of discretion did not exist for the rest of the game. He applied the law rigidly, adhered to the standard that he had applied from the get-go. What we witnessed was an unravelling.

The game gradually descended into an unspeakable farce, a yellow and red card fest that just did not relent. By the time the game ended, 16 yellow cards and four reds had been shown. The four red cards were the most in a single World Cup game ever. In the last couple of minutes, players, pushed to beyond frustration by the referee, began making impetuous tackles and fouls.

And what was clear was this: the referee who had set out to show he was in control in such a strong fashion was clearly not in control. Any authority he had striven to assert had been shorn off him by the time the game began ticking into injury time.

I was reminded of all that watching John O’Donoghue endure his first day as Ceann Comhairle last Tuesday. One of the features of the last Dáil was the frequent clashes between his predecessor Rory O’Hanlon and Labour leader Pat Rabbitte, mostly over Rabbitte’s remote understanding of what constituted two minutes of speaking time. Very often Leader’s Questions would go 15 or 20 minutes over the time allotted to it. To be sure, one of the biggest miscreants when it came to time-keeping was the chief anorak himself on the Government benches but the Ceann Comhairle was never in the habit of telling the emperor about the state of his undress.

You could see where O’Donoghue was coming from. He wanted to impose himself like a strong referee from the get-go, hand out a yellow card for the first heavy tackle, and by imposing his authority early, the House would quickly come to heel.

His mistake was that he picked the wrong target. Enda Kenny was never the worst offender when it came to time-keeping — you could have counted on one hand the times that he and the chair had clashed over time-keeping.

And, despite the good-humoured and youthful smile that Kenny maintained throughout their exchanges, there is a bit of the old dog for the hard road about him (he is the father of the House after all — having been elected 32 years ago).

As O’Donoghue slapped him on the wrist for going over time, Kenny began gently goading him. You could almost see him light the match and quietly place it up to the very short fuse, put his fingers into his ear, and wait for the deafening explosion to go off.

He started off by telling O’Donoghue to be quiet. O’Donoghue was out of his chair quicker than dung off a shovel, and his complexion (always fleshy) began to deepen to scarlet with the heat being generated with his tongue.

The more he lambasted Kenny, the more Kenny and his troops began doing what the picadors in a bullfight too — sticking the spears into the flesh of the Bull O’Donoghue.

Before we get carried away with the ‘bull’ analogy, it’s time to return to football and to great refereeing moments of our time. Once he had brandished the first yellow card, there was no return. Within minutes, he was flashing them constantly and it was inevitable that the red card would have to be produced.

The problem was there was no saving face. If he backed down, he lost. If he persevered and ploughed on, he also lost. It was incredible. Arthur Morgan and Michael Ring joined the fray. The stuff with Ring was like a pantomime. You are leaving the chamber! Oh no, I’m not. Yes, you are leaving? No I am not.

Over the past four years since I first sat on the bird’s nest above the chamber, there have been some disruptive scenes. But it was the first time that the Ceann Comhairle provided the start, beginning and end of them.

To be sure, Fianna Fáil are going into government for a third time. But with the opposition benches packed to the rafters — and with a Ceann Comhairle as colourful as O’Donoghue — I think we will witness interesting times!

This is my column from today's Irish Examiner. (I am on leave for the next few weeks so blog entries will be sporadic!)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


WE all wondered what we would do without the comic talents of Joe Higgins.

But on the first real day of the Dáil returning, a ready-made joker emerged from the pack.

This might strike you as a bit strange but the very same deputy who was responsible for keeping order in the house was also single-handedly responsible for some of the most unruly scenes of disorder in the house for many years.

It was Kerry TD John O’Donoghue’s debut as Ceann Comhairle and he gave a textbook example of “a turn-up for the books”.

The problem wasn’t that the new Ceann Comhairle’s ability to keep easily excitable deputies under control. It was more deputies not being able to keep an easily excitable Ceann Comhairle under control.

The man who is known as “The Bull” had finally found his china shop. By the time the rampage had come to an end a debate that should have taken half an hour had dragged on for almost three, two TDs had been chucked out of the house and anyone who dared to wave the red flag to him was trampled over with a verbal onslaught.

O’Donoghue has many extraordinary qualities but one of them isn’t a long fuse.

Perhaps he came into the chamber yesterday with the intention of laying down the law but it was hard to figure what law we were witnessing. Sure, John O’Donoghue was wearing the Cathaoirleach’s robes but at times you were unsure if you were in the Dáil or in the Wild West and whether he was the sheriff or the chief outlaw.

Within three minutes of the start, his hackles had been raised. The mild-mannered Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny had gone over his three minutes and O’Donoghue was in no mood to play extra time.

After a couple of exchanges, Kenny made the mistake of saying: “Quiet now, you are new in the job”.

The Ceann Comhairle was out of his chair like a greyhound out of traps.

“You will not say ‘quiet’ to me sir,” he roared at Kenny.

“The deputy will be seated when the chairman is standing,” became the recurring theme of the afternoon.

Kenny’s good humour gave way to jibes. “The perception in Kerry is that you have no power down there,” he said. The taunts came thick and fast from the opposition benches. Zero tolerance, they shouted, reminding the Ceann Comhairle of a previous incarnation.

Strangely Pat Rabbitte, who clashed frequently with the previous ceann comhairle, was as good as gold yesterday, and (uncharacteristically) waved no red flags at the Bull.

For at this stage, O’Donoghue was distracted by all the other miscreants. The first to get the red card was Sinn Féin’s Arthur Morgan, who was told to sit down by the Ceann Comhairle when he got up to speak, but refused.

He was kicked out but refused to go, and stubbornly stayed on for 20 minutes before sheepishly making his exit.

And then — surprise, surprise — it was Fine Gael’s Michael Ring. He made the mistake of accusing O’Donoghue of “making it up as you go along”.

A mini-volcano erupted from the summit of the Ceann Comhairle’s chair.

“That’s a disgraceful statement and completely untrue,” roared the Ceann Comhairle.

You will leave the house, he told Ring. I won’t leave the house, replied Ring. There followed a pantomime exhange along the lines of 'oh yes you will leave' and 'oh no I will not leave'.

The upshot was that house was suspended twice as the mulish Ring refused to leave. The long and short of it was that he later left under a protest loud enough for his supporters in Belmullet to hear.

The delay was so severe that the debate on the new Stamp Duty Bill for first- time buyers was allotted all of 35 minutes, making it one of the shortest debates on a new piece of legislation in recent history.

A version of this appeared in this morning's Irish Examiner

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Sometime late last night – or even today in a summit that was tediously snailing its way to either success or failure– two of the Europe’s longest-standing leaders interrupted their colleagues to make a joint statement in the wrapping-it-up part.

Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair told the other 25 prime ministers that the neverending bush fire that had been Northern Ireland’s political situation had been quenched, doused, and finally brought under control.

This peace unlike all the previous ceasefires and agreements was permanent, forever. With the earlier attempts, violent or trouble invariably returned like a raging fire jumping across a road or a track or a fire-break.

Okay, they didn’t phrase it like that. European Council summits tend to be sticklers for formality. But the net point was this. Following the ceremonies at Stormont and Westminster, this was the final, really final, occasion in which both leaders could do another lap of honour – point to the one great and historical legacy of their close decade-long political partnership.

Next Friday on June 29th Tony Blair resigns after the longest long goodbye in political history. Over the last year, and particularly in the last few months, we have seen him do all the valedictory stuff, his farewell tour– the visit to Iraq, the gradual ceding of power to Gordon Brown, the emotional goodbye in his Sedgefield constituency, the extraordinary day in Stormont (and peace in the North will probably be Blair’s greatest legacy).

But almost un-noticed (in fact not noticed at all) another political career has reached its high water mark and is now beginning to slowly ebb. For the moment that Bertie Ahern grasped a third election in a row, was the moment when he started letting go. To be sure, the anorak braved ferocious elements in its time. But its surprising sturdiness at withstanding everything thrown at it cannot disguise its obsolescence.

Anyone who tracked Blair’s career will know of his near obsession with legacy – his sometimes barmy ideas to ensure that he would be remembered by posterity. Iraq is Iraq. No more needs to be said about that shameful escapade. On the other end of the scale is Northern Ireland, an unqualified success story. In between there are failures (the Millennium Dome), successes (the London Olympics in 2012), as well as a mixed bag of half-completed or half-abandoned ‘reforms’.

And in anointing Brian Cowen as the chosen one last week, Ahern was finally acknowledging his own mortality. His legacy will be a little less tangible. It could have been the National Stadium but that fell asunder. Historically, it will be the North. And generally, it will find expression in the simple language he himself used at a Fianna Fail Ard Fheis a couple of years ago of wanting a “better Ireland”.

Materially at least – and the thumping FF consolidation in the last election was proof of this – that he has achieved. There was a time when TDs from all political parties drove Opel Vectras or VW Passats. Now most drive gleaming big Mercs and BMWs. And like their politicians, the swathe of Irish people that matter (ie those who are not too poor to vote) have all traded-up their lifestyles in ten years.

In the past week, there have been more theories about why Bertie named Cowen as anorak-elect than there are about the whereabouts of Lord Lucan. The problem with a man who made confusion into an art form is that even when he makes a straight statement people read convolution and confusion into it.

Some have pointed out that Cowen and Ahern are not the close friends as the Taoiseach paints it (that’s true). They also say that Cowen doesn’t need Ahern’s imprimatur (that’s true). Some people have suggested that it will give Cowen no help at all, that by naming him that Ahern has performed some unspeakable Machiavellian act. And its net effect is that ht has actually undermined him. (that’s very not true).

But a surprising number of people have said that to me this week as if it were Gospel. To them, I’ve replied: ‘I hear what you are saying’ which is a great euphemism for bunkum and piffle.

For once, let’s assume Ahern was telling it straight. Cowen is his natural successor. Maybe Ahern was also giving public confirmation in a roundabout way that he will not last until he’s 60 (that’s a political eon away in September 2011). Perhaps too he was giving Cowen fair warning that he needs to start to step up his preparations to take on the challenge – or more importantly to take on the challengers, including Micheal Martin, Dermot Ahern, Mary Hanafin and Noel Dempsey.

Ahern has an ability to see around corners. He saw off Sinn Fein in the election (actually somebody described Michael McDowell as the jihadist of the campaign – in destroying Sinn Fein’s chances he also completely destroyed his own). He had the foresight to bring in the Greens, not just for numbers but as a means of winning the 2012 election.

And maybe too he is looking at the future and seeing a long-standing Fianna Fail tradition which was wholly absent during his reign making an unwelcome return. And that’s the Fianna Fail of splits and personality clashes, leadership heaves and bad blood.

And maybe he’s saying that the only way of removing that element of uncertainty is by making sure that a strong Putin-like leader replaces him.

This column appeared in today's Irish Examiner

Saturday, June 16, 2007


THE two Green ministers cycled to their new departments for their first day of work yesterday. This wasn’t a David Cameron
moment. There was no car and driver crawling behind Eamon Ryan or John Gormley carrying their suits and their papers as they negotiated the horrendous traffic and the even more horrendous weather. This wasn’t just a bit of show for the cameras. This was a real demonstration of intent and purpose. This may come as a shock but they really mean what they say.
But surprise, surprise, it wasn’t the biggest such demonstration or direct action yesterday. The Greens were outflanked on that score by Fianna Fáil. Decisively so. And the identity of the person who broke from the comfort zone of the peloton? Yes, none other than the man in the yellow jersey, the Lance Armstrong of Irish politics.

Part of the package that has made Bertie Ahern so phenomenally successful is that he is so guarded, so deliberately evasive and opaque with his language, that you’re never sure of how he’s going to act until he’s acted. And so adept is he at throwing the anorak of deception over every pronouncement that sometimes, you are not even sure of how he’s acted even after he’s acted.

His interview with Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ’s News at One yesterday was remarkable. If you ever pick up a gossip or celebrity magazine you are always promised that such and such a personality is giving their most revealing interview ever. And then you read it and you discover that it’s the most revealing interview since the most revealing interview they gave last month. We have that before with the Taoiseach too. He can talk an awful lot in interviews, yet say very little.

But yesterday was very different. O’Rourke is one of the best interrogative ministers in the business. But in truth there was no probing in it yesterday. A "chancing your arm" type question about the possibility of Brian Cowen succeeding Ahern opened up the floodgates.

And yes folks, this was Bertie Ahern giving his most revealing interview ever.

"I could give you a lot of political answers about this one, but I’m not going to go down that road," he said.

He described Brian Cowen as a great friend for 20 years, praised his brilliant mind and his experience.

"He’s a hugely, hugely experienced politician, and I think, from my point of view — and it’s obviously the party (which) will ultimately decide — from my point of view, he is the obvious successor to me in five years’ time or whenever."

Ahern was as relaxed and at ease with himself yesterday than at any time in the past decade. That was deeply unsurprising. He had lifted the political equivalent of Sam for a third time in a row, placing him is now firmly second only in the Fianna Fáil pantheon to Eamon de Valera., the man who founded and personified the party during its first three decades of existence.

His surprisingly direct blessing of Cowen as the “anointed” one was telling. O’Rourke compared it to Dev and Lemass. In the modern context, it is Blair and Brown, although without the personal tension, distrust and antipathy though, the relationship between the two leading figures in FF isn’t always as silkily smooth as Ahern portrayed it today).

At the same time the naming of his successor by Ahern was a move that took everybody by surprise. His strategy over the past five years has been to promote all the obvious candidates in the succession race to senior positions — Micheál Martin; Dermot Ahern, Mary Hanafin and now possibly Brian Lenihan. And though they talk themselves down, at least three of the other possibles harbour fierce and burning ambitions to be leader.

But in the past year, Cowen has copper fastened his position as the runaway front-runner. He has all the positions, in charge of the key finance ministry, deputy head anorak and now Tánaiste. At moments of crisis for the party Fianna Fáil — and most of them have revolved around Bertie Ahern in the past 12 months — he is the guy who has grasped the nettle by the stem.

Ahern’s TV-debate performance was crucial during the election campaign. But no more important than the formidable and dashing performances given by Cowen.
As with Across the water, Gordon Brown, has gradually taken on more of the prime ministerial duties. Here, we are also seeing a slow accession beginning to gather pace here. Cowen not Ahern was the Fianna Fáiler who spoke when the parliamentary party gathered on the plinth on Wednesday. Within two years, three at the most, the handover will take place. There is no way that Bertie Ahern will remain until he is 60 and he knows that as much as anybody.

Does Cowen want it? Of course, he does. He is at the heart of Fianna Fáil — he is the heart of Fianna Fáil. The Greens also have a leadership issue on their hands, chose their leader by a unique process called a preferendum. — they don’t vote but pick the chosen one by consensus.

It seems that Fianna Fáil will learn from them and choose a new leader by acclamation rather than by vote. And like his new Green ministerial colleagues he’s already pedalling away furiously.

Friday, June 15, 2007


IT MIGHT have been high-octane drama (if that’s an appropriate phrase for the Greens) for the past fortnight but its conclusion last night with the naming of the Cabinet was one that might have been ordered by Hollywood executives — make it uplifting, feelgood, non-offensive and 100% bland.

Yes, Bertie Ahern made history yesterday when he became the first taoiseach in more than 60 years to be elected for three successive terms. The opposition acknowledged that yesterday in under-the-breath compliments.

Labour leader Pat Rabbitte said it was a remarkable achievement and, at his most magnanimous, said he did so without cavils or caveats. But then he spoiled it a bit by adding a couple of cavils and caveats such as Ahern being a lucky general like Napoleon.

But in his first act as taoiseach, he displayed all the attributes that have kept him at the top for so long.

When you removed the two Green TDs from the equation, it was minimalist, not so much a reshuffle as the removal of a single card. And that was the unfortunate knave otherwise known as Dick Roche, who parlayed himself out of FF’s election campaign and out of a job. It was a hard blow for the bright, loquacious, but ultimately limited Roche, who less than three years in Cabinet finds himself back as junior minister for European Affairs.

In a parting shot, Roche gave the go-ahead for the M3 motorway, 24 hours before John Gormley would succeed him as environment minister.

The Taoiseach has railed against those who say that he doesn’t have the nerve to go in for Cabinet culls.

But with surgical incisions, he does tend to be superficial rather than invasive. With a soft-toe shuffle, he moved Charlie McCreevy to Europe in 2004, and finally dispensed with the services of Joe Walsh and Michael Smith.

This time round, the only new Fianna Fáil face at the Cabinet table is Brian Lenihan, who after a long apprenticeship is elevated to the office of Minister for Justice. To accommodate him and the two Green ministers, Roche was shunted out, and John O’Donoghue appointed as ceann comhairle.

Others wouldn’t or couldn’t be shifted. If Martin Cullen was demoted it would be capitulation to the opposition — it would also have meant there was no minister in the south-east.

This time round, Séamus Brennan’s starring role in the campaign and negotiations ensured his survival. Ditto Noel Dempsey, who takes over the Department of Transport and the Marine. But nine of the 15 hold onto their positions.

For the Greens, it was a great day. They gained two plum roles in Cabinet, John Gormley in Environment and Eamon Ryan in Community, Energy and Natural Resources.

The Greens argued this week that the ministries they control will give them the greatest chance of being influencers.

However, it was inevitable that the Greens would come in for an early attack from their former allies. Enda Kenny quoted back all the insults the Greens and the PDs hurled at each other over the past six months.

They say the first 100 days of government sets the standard for the full term. On day one, a departing FF minister gave the go-ahead for the M3. The two Green ministers will have their work cut out to make the difference they have so boldly promised.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Bertie Ahern was amazingly conservative in his appointment of ministers. He never had the sanguine nature to do the slashing job that Albert Reynolds did when he became Taoiseach.

Bertie's method is an effective one. He is not into invasive surgery. When things had to change in 2004 he did so with a minimum of fuss. Charlie McCreevy was booted upstairs. Joe Walsh and Michael Smith were finally given their walking papers. And that allowed him to bring in three.

The same kind of compositional creatity was used this time around. He offered John O'Donoghue the Ceann Comhairle position. He could have done a bit more tinkering and appointed Brian Lenihan as Attorney General (there is no bar for a politician to become A-G). In the event Dick Roche got the flick to accommoddate John Gormley and Eamon Ryan.

Whatever deficiencies there were for the Greens in the draft programme for government, they partly made up by getting two plum ministries, both of which feed strongly into the green agenda.

And for those who had to be shifted, the big winners were the negotiators. Noel Dempsey moves to Transport and Marine; Seamus Brennan parlayed his way into a position that he became indispensable - Bertie just couldn't drop him after his starring role over the past six weeks. And for Brian Cowen, his position as the 'annointed' was confirmed by him becoming the first Tanaiste since John Wilson.


It's going to be an amazing day. A new Dail. A new Government. The protocol and procedures. Ciaran Cuffe's interview on Morning Ireland this morning with his admission that there will be constant tension set the tone. We will have interesting times ahead. The Greens will have to perform strongly as Ministers though to make up for the Green shortfall in a programme for government that is indistinguishable (almost) from the FF manifesto.

Last night's overwhelming yea to Government by the Greens last night was equally amazing. It was highly emotional; a coming-of-age for a political party. The 87% backing for the leadership was extraordinary.

And Trevor Sargent's decision to resign showed a rare display of honour amongst the band of thieves that is the political class and the hacks that write and talk about them. That he was not only stepping down but also forfeiting a ministerial seat spoke volumes about the moral strength of the man. He didn't have to do it. He could have been persuaded to change his mind. Sure, he would have shipped some flak. But he would have survived them, as Bertie Ahern has.

So now for an exciting day. A new Ceann Comhairle. A trip to the Park. The ushering in by Bertie of the selected 15 to tell them they are members of the new Cabinet. The dramatic unveiling of the new Ministers, to the Dail and at Aras an Uachtarain where they will receive their seals of office.

Who will the new ministers be in the 30th Dail. Well, will John O'Donoghue move on? And allow Brian Lenihan in? Who will be the Green Party TDs in Government. John Gormley? Certainly. And the other? Eamon Ryan or Ciaran Cuffe? It's hard to say. Who will get the Justice portfolio? Will Lenihan (of whom they say Ahern isn't very fond) get promoted straight into justice? Will it be Dermot Ahern or even Willie O'Dea?

For now it's all second-guessery. Having second-guessed Ahern so badly in the past, I'm not going to plump for anybody.

Here's the piece I wrote for this morning's Irish Examiner, which I finished a couple of hours before the event.

After ten straight days of sultry sunshine, the skies finally broke over Dublin. And when the rain arrived in Dublin, it sheeted down from heavens for hour and hours, unrelentingly.

It was a timely reminder that for all the talk of heat and global warming Ireland still means rain, and lots of it.

And when the joint programme for government was finally produced yesterday, that was a timely remind that for all the talk of green tides and new dispensations, Ireland still means Fianna Fail, and lots of it.

Yesterday was always going to be the pivotal day for the Greens. There is no party as ideological in Ireland these days; no party as truly democratic. And to get into government the ‘realos’ (or realists) of its political leadership would have to sell the document to its membership, a sizeable minority of whom remain ‘fundies’ (or fundamentalists) – those who remain immovable on core issues like incineration or motorways or the war in Iraq.

And what’s more, not only did the leadership have to get a majority, it had to get a stonking two thirds majority – and that would be a hard ask for even the more conventional parties if they were embarking on a major change of direction.

As one member of the senior leadership described how the day would pan out: “We are a horribly open and democratic party. People will say their piece. We don’t know who is going to show up. We don’t know what proportion of members will back our opinion. We have a huge job of persuasion to do.”

And the huge job was not made any easier by the bad start the Greens had to the day. Somebody (presumably from the Fianna Fail side) leaked details of the joint programme for government to the media. And some party members began to choke on their muesli when they read that the party had ceded on Shannon; on the M3 Motorway at Tara; and on hospital co-location.

And soon after the doubters were ventilating their concerns, based on a newspaper report that wasn’t entirely accurate or complete. Former TD Roger Garland described it as a betrayal. Former MEP Patricia McKenna was expressing serious reservations about Shannon. The majority of those who were vox popped on radio seemed to be members of the party’s awkward squad, opposed to the programme on various grounds, ranging from Shannon to antipathy to Fianna Fail.

It took the morning for the pro-government forces to get off the back foot and rally back. For a couple of hours, the negatives were in circulation with a virtual monkish silence on the positives. The party began a round of intensive briefings with the media, pushing the fact that they had got a 3% reduction on emissions, a carbon levy, some concessions on extraordinary rendition, E350 million per annum for education plus (in defiance of expectations) two senior ministries and two junior ministries.

But on a cursory look, the draft programme had a kind of familiar look to it. Where had we seen that before? we all asked. Well, yes indeed, it was the Fianna Fail manifesto in the main, with some Green initiatives attached. But they were not as significant, as far-reaching, as potentially sea-changing as you might have expected.

If that was all the Greens had achieved late on Tuesday night, how slim had their gains been when they abandoned ship last Friday?

Transport 21 - and all its motorways - remains intact. All the co-location clinics will go ahead (the Greens could never really have hoped to budge FF on that one). No halt to current incineration projects either. There is not a syllable about the US military passing through Shannon – a surefire sign that FF weren’t going to budge on that either.

Sure, there was a line on extraordinary rendition but was it strong enough to ensure the regular inspection of plane traffic through Shannon.

Senior insiders said that it meant, that from Ireland’s perspective, the circus that arose in Iraq will not be repeated.

But one candidly admitted. “We tried for the strongest possible wordking but didn’t achieve in getting it. We will try to not allow the circumstances of 2002 and 2003 to re-occur. We have received a stronger wording on extraordinary rendition.”

The Green strategy to sell the document was three-fold. The first ingredient used by all its leading members yesterday was a refreshing and disarming honesty. They all agreed that they were disappointed with some aspects, that they didn’t achieve everything they wanted.

Dan Boyle was the person who fielded most of the questions from delegates at the Mansion House in central Dublin yesterday. This quote from him was emblematic of that approach.

“It is not a great document. It may not even be a good document but it does contain good elements and those elements come from us.”

Yes, predominantly Fianna Fail, but the Green Party leadership went in for a sustained hard sell on those ‘good elements’, stressing the influence its presence would bring to bear on government policy.

They stressed in particular that the Greens had won two senior ministries and two junior ministries and that those ministries would be in the areas – environment, energy, and transport – where the heart of the Green philosophy lay. If you had a minister in charge of that area, they argued, you were already half way there.

They also made the point – and you couldn’t argue with this – that the party has six deputies compared to FF’s 78. On top of that, the bigger party didn’t ultimately need them. Moreover, they argued, the thrust of the party’s direction over the past five years was to be in Government, to implement green policies before it was too late.

Sure, Fianna Fail wasn’t its first-choice bed-fellow. And in another instance of that honesty, of his public wrestling of conscience, Trevor Sargent made good on his promise and offered himself as a sacrificial lamb, saying the future of the country was more important that his own. We will not know for sure if he will make good on his offer to resign, or if his party will persuade him to stay on.

Two thirds was a big ask for the Greens. And they based all the negotiations on policy, insisting that if they could win enough tangible Green policies, then the membership could be persuaded.

Paradoxically, it might be mood rather than hard-nosed calculation on ‘have we go enough?’ that will swing it.

I spoke to a fair few delegates going into the meeting. Some were opposed. But others, while disappointed with some aspects, spoke of a mood for change, a sense that it was time, or of excitement that the Greens could enter government and transform the country, much as the country changed after Mary Robinson’s victory in 1990.

Two thirds was a big ask. But it was also a big question. And you sensed that finally the Greens were finally ready to answer it with a decisive ‘yes’.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


It's just after 3pm and there are maybe 300 Greens at the crucial meeting that will decide its future. It's a horrible day in Dublin, unrelenting rain, some of it heavy. Will that dampen the Greens, the most ideologically driven party of them all? Hardly. I'd say as the hours wear on, the bulk of the Dublin membership will descend on the Mansion House.

Last night, the look of relief and of achievement was etched on the faces of the party's leadership - and even Ciaran Cuffe, who was perceived as the most wary of FF, said he was delighted with the deal.

But with the Greens its bottom-up democracy. And it just took a couple of minutes of cogitation to realise that this was not in the bag.

There is a minority in the party who don't want to see it deal with FF, come hell or high water. There are other minorities too for whom there can be no compromise on Shannon, or on incineration, or on colocation, or on the motorwarys, or on other issues.

Certainly, the leaked details that the Times did so well to get this morning was damaging. It focused on what the Greens had failed to secure (Shannon, the M3, colocation, Tanaiste) rather than the gains the party had made.

More details kind of filtered out this morning that showed that the Greens have secured some big ticket concessions on the environment and climate change, plus a couple of eye-catching promises on medical cards for young children, those with intellecutal disabilities, plus the securing of funding for the centres who use ABA methods for autistic children.

However, will it be enought to win over delegates. You must remember that there are still many 'fundies' in the Greens as well as the more pragmatic and realistic 'realos'.

And for the Greens to go into Government, they will need to secure a 66% mandates. That's a huge ask by any reckoning.

Talking to Greens today, many think it's delicately balanced and will depend on the turn-out. The more who arrive, the better chance it has of succeeding. But already there's doubts about whether or not it's enough to sway enough.

And there are also rumours circulating that Trevor Sargent may offer to step down as leader tonight. He said he would not lead the Greens into a Government with Fianna Fail. That's just about to happen. There's also a sense that the party membership may try to encourage him to stay.

We are all on tenterhooks!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


10.30PM. As dramatic as everything this past 12 days. The 59th minute of the 11th hour - after five, or was it six, deadlines - had passed.

There was no mistaken the barely suppressed euphoria of the Green leadership. As Dan Boyle walked towards the Green party HQ in Suffolk Street, his smile was as wide as the Bog of Allen.

The deal had been struck. The Greens will be in Government. Along with the PDs and independents of the ilk of Michael Lowry and Beverly Flynn. They will parlay a justification for that. And they are confident that they can carry the extraordinary meeting of the party membership tomorrow evening, with the draft document they have.

Little of it was revealed. Trevor hinted that they had made progress on standards in government and also on health, but all will be revealed tomorrow.

Will he be Tanaiste? Unlikely. The next big question will be how many ministries they can wrest out of FF - just one plus a super junior or two full ministries like the PDs got in 1989?


3PM. There's been a lot of waiting around today. There was a brief flurry of scaredom following Dan Boyle's comments just before lunch. A couple of people believed he had said that fundamental differences still existed. If that were true, that would have spelt trouble.

But what he actually said was:

"We are a lot closer. There is not a huge difference. The items that remain are quite fundamental to the Green Party."

So we are very close. Boyle put it memorably last night but as yet there is no cigar smoke to be seeing rising above the roof of Government buildings.

There have been a lot of canards put out in the past couple of days. The first is that Boyle and John Gormley wanted to make the deal last Friday but Trevor Sargent put his foot down. That has been denied by all the Greens at the heart of these negotiations. In addition, there were rumours that a lot of the differences were over how many ministries the Greens would get; or about difficulties with the PDs. That wasn't true either. Sure, there was talk about composition of government but most of the sticking points related to policy. And as the quote from above illustrates, policy is where it's at today.

Even if a deal is secured, it's not a done deal by any means. The Greens still need to sell it to their membership tomorrow. The party needs a two-thirds majority of its membership to approve it. And while the leadership is making damn sure it's not going to put a deal on the table that's going to bellyflop with its membership, it will still involve a bit of a rocky ride for Trevor and the others.


11.40am. In a matter of hours, Fianna Fail and the Greens will emerge from the depths of the Leinster House complex to tell us they have forged a deal and that they will go into government together.

I walked from here to the Luas stop at Jervis Street after work last night. It was close to 11pm. I passed the Green Party HQ on Suffolk Street and could see the lights still blazing on the fifth floor.

This morning they have resumed, putting the final touches to the draft programme for government. Dan Boyle and Noel Dempsey are working on the document while John Gormley and Seamus Brennan are working on the outstanding issues.

It was kind of funny to see the body language last night. Seamus Brennan was incredibly upbeat. He said his mood was realistic but everything else he said betrayed that. In contrast, Trevor was a bit more sombre, a bit more cautious. Still big gaps, he suggested, as it it wasn't quite a done deal.

But then at 10.30pm the Greens issued a statement that was brimming with confidence. A deal was likely. It was convening its meeting.

If it happens, I think it will be a very exciting, very brave new development for Irish politics. I think the Green tinge will give FF a badly needed sense of renewal and of rejuvenation. For a long time it was touch and go whether Bertie would get a mandate for a third term. Even after ten years, the government was beginning to have a jaded look about it. There's been a lot of talk about the influence that Greens will have in government. Sure, they will have influence. But it will be minuscule compared to the influence that FF will have. And that's the most important factor.


By midnight on the night of the election count, it was clear that Fianna Fail would need to court the support of others if it wanted to get back into Government.

The party had done astoundingly well but even with its impressive haul of 78 seats was tantalisingly close but not quite there. To put it in a mountaineering vein, Everest is 8,850 metres high but the last few hundred metres is the hardest.

It was hardly a unique position for Fianna Fáil to find itself in. They were a couple short five years ago. But then the PDs had eight TDs and that was never going to be a problem. And they also found themselves coming up short in 1997. And it’s those events of ten years ago that makes the courting of the Greens so remarkable.

Bertie Ahern’s first election as leader of Fianna Fail saw the party win 77 seats. The PDs hit a bit of a trough that time, returning only four. The combined strength of both parties was 81. The situation facing Fianna Fail a decade later is uncannily similar. Granted, together they have one less at 80. But now, as then, there are enough independents there to allow them forge a deal.

So why have they worked so hard to put together what amounts to the State’s first Fianna Fail-led Rainbow rather than relying only on the traditional props of the PDs and ‘like-minded independents’?

On the face of it, it’s hard to fathom. On the Sunday morning following the election, Bertie Ahern spoke of the PDs and the Independents being his first preference and the Greens being his clear second preference.

And that seemed to make sense. If you rewind to 1997, the consensus was that FF and the PDs could do it with only two gene pool deputies. In the event, they secured the support of four non-aligned TDs (but all with hues of Fianna Fail, from light to deep). Then, many people predicted the government would last a year. But it lasted five, without any real bother.

So why change such a winning arrangement? The PDs needed to be in Government in order to survive. And FF would just need to secure the services of only three independents (though only one with a provenance in the party).

For the Greens, last week’s marathon talks with Fianna Fail was their political coming of age. Forty hours of tough negotiations were grinding – and you could see the tiredness etched all over John Gormley and Dan Boyle’s face on Friday evening.

When they broke down after six days, a whole host of theories (benign, conspiracy and Machiavellian) started doing the rounds. One was that FF were only stringing the Greens along to make sure the independents didn’t demand too much in their separate negotiations? The other prime theory it was all designed to muddy the waters and allow FF to enter negotiations with its real target, the Labour Party. Pat Rabbitte committed his party to support Enda Kenny until the vote for Taoiseach on Thursday – after that all votes would be off.

But anyone who watched the body language of both parties on Friday evening knew there was something else afoot. At their press conference Greens looked exhausted, disappointed – as if the race had been run. But within half an hour, one of the FF negotiators Seamus Brennan was on RTE’s Six-One News. He was remarkably upbeat and positive and grabbed every available second to praise Trevor Sargent and the Greens. In the background, the Fianna Fail negotiators were sanguine and relaxed. It wasn’t all over. The Greens no longer had the deadline of the special meeting on Sunday looming over them. If they took a bit of time to reflect on it over the weekend, both sides could return for a second bite.

And that’s how it happened. Informal contacts continued over the weekend. And in a remarkable article in a Sunday newspaper, Bertie Ahern used language you would never imagine him using in his political career.

"I belive that an environmentally sustainable economy is the only way forward for Ireland and the planet."

Bertie Ahern? It could have been taken straight out of a Sargent speech. That was very significant. And there was more. FF were genuinely open to new ideas. In the problem areas like climate change, transport, health and education, – where all the “insurmountable” obstacles were– Fianna Fail believed that the Green Party’s policies were “not incompatible” with our own. John Gormley gave a clear signal on RTE Radio’s This Week programme that the Greens were willing to talk. Within minutes FF had contacted him. The game was back on.

The speed at which things resumed was as breath-taking as last week. Within hours the Greens had produced a paper on the areas where there were differences. By noon yesterday, Fianna Fail had responded. All afternoon, negotiators from both parties shuffled between their headquarters and the Dail to take part in a series of bilaterals and informal talks.

The parties began drafting a programme for government based on agreed areas. The ‘bit ticket’ areas where there was still contention were parked. And from early afternoon, it was clear that those issues would be thrashed out by two men, Bertie Ahern and Trevor Sargent.

Ahern arrived into Government buildings in late afternoon, departed for a short while and then returned. Shortly before 7pm, Sargent left his party headquarters to make the short ten minute walk to Leinster House. He was accompanied by general secretary Dónall Geoghegan. John Gormley cycled home to change his shirt. The third negotiator, Dan Boyle, in Leinster House. Gormley and Boyle said that there were still gaps, that it wasn’t a done deal.

“Close but no cigar,” said Boyle, summing up the delicate balance between success and failure.

But why did FF go to such efforts to woo the Greens if they didn’t really need them? It was nothing to do with filibustering. It was partly the security of numbers, certainly. But there was also a sense that 15 years of FF and the PD would make it into a tired unelectable government – that the Greens would give renewal and reinvigoration, make the government as a whole more attractive to the next generation.

And that's why later on this morning the Greens will walk out of Government Buildings with a deal.

A version of this appeared in this morning's Irish Examiner

Monday, June 11, 2007


It's 8.25pm. A small piece of geography first. There are two entrances to Leinster House, one on Kildare Street and one on Merrion Street. Kildare Street is the front entrance. But the Merrion Street entrance is where Government Buildings are. I'll come back to this in a mo.

Bertie Ahern and Trevor Sargent have been closeted in Government Buildings for an hour now, trying to see if they can find some agreement on the contentious issues. We have already had four final deadlines, so nobody will be too surprised if it slips onto tomorrow.

The Greens have been around all afternoon. John Gormley cycled home about 45 minutes ago to change his shirt. Ciaran Cuffe had to go home to mind his kids. Dan Boyle put the state of play of negotiations best when we bumped into him at the Plinth at the front of Leinster House.

"Close but no cigar."

We will know very soon if there's a Government, or at least one that involves the Greens.

So why the intro about the two entrances.

Well, here are the likely scenarios:

If the Greens do strike a deal, then Bertie Ahern and Trevor Sargent will walk shoulder to shoulder out from Government Buildings on the Merrion Street side.

If there is no deal, then Trevor Sargent will lead the Greens out the front entrance of Leinster House on the Kildare Street side.

Reporters who are camping out awaiting development face a kind of Hobson's choice. If they are pessimists they will hang around the Kildare Street side; while the optimists have gravitated over to the Merrion Street side.

Wish everthing in politics could be as clear-cut as that choice!


Experiencing what's going on between Fianna Fail and the Green is almost like intruding on somebody else's courtship. Yesterday morning I texted one Green Party insider to ask what was happening. The reply:

"No official contact yet just the fluttering of eyelashes across newsprint"

That brings us to Bertie Ahern's article in the Sunday Indo yesterday. (Incidentally, apropos nothing in particular, why do the amazing FF scoops the Sindo have got for the past three weeks remind you of the immortal phrase 'Payback Time'). If they could have got the end of the sentences to rhyme, it could have been one of the great love sonnets.

Gone was the man who told an Ogra Fianna Fail conference last February that he wouldn't cut, shovel or dig with those johnny-come-latelys.

Instead we had a sensitive troubadour who had the whole package instead of an acoustic guitar and a flower in his hair.

There was one sentence in particular that I thought that Bertie would never utter in a million years:

"I believe that an environmentally sustainable economy is the only way forward for Ireland and the planet."

There you go. And the rest of it was astounding. That Fianna Fail was genuinely open to new ideas, to the concerns of the other side, and that he saw a lot of merit (which makes a big change from the past five years) in some of their suggestions.

And then he came to the policy areas where the biggest gaps are: on transport; health an education. The policies of both parties were "not incompatible" with each other.

What a phrase! What a politician!

So what was the strategy? There has been a lot of speculation that Fianna Fail misinterpreted the Greens, that they took what was a fundamental problem for the Greens as a bit of tactical brinkmanship. That could be true. But while the Greens felt it was more or less over, the immediate reaction from FF was stunning.

From the Seamus Brennan interview on Friday night, it became clear that FF wanted to go back to see if they could get a second bit. Maybe part of their thinking was that it was pointless adhering to the Greens timetable of holding the meeting on Monday. By stopping on Friday there was no meeting. That particular monkey would be off the Greens back. Both sides could pause and reflect on the totality and reality of the situation.

It's 5.30pm on Monday now. Bertie Ahern is apparently in Government buildings. The Greens are involved in bilaterals on some of the issues, mainly non-contentious ones.
The contentious issues will probably be dealt with - we are told - by both leaders, if it comes to that. There has been some progress today but we are still in the dark as to whether the problems that were insurmountable have now become surmountable.

The Greens are also working against the clock. They need an agreement this evening or tonight if they are to convene the special meeting of their members on Wednesday. Much more will become known over the next hour or two.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


On Politics
Harry McGee
It is decreed by nature that school examinations and talks on coalition government can only take place when the sun is splitting the rocks and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

This week must have felt like doing the Leaving Certificate again for the Fianna Fail and Green Party negotiators, cooped up indoors in an intense, tortuously long and energy-sapping experience, trawling through the minutiae derived from dense texts.

And as the exhausted Green party negotiators emerged into the June sunshine yesterday evening, they had the look of students who got a little tripped up by a trick question on the honours paper.

In a week that wavered between hope and despondency for both parties, it looked for a couple of hours early yesterday afternoon that a deal might be possible.

Both sides had compromised on a lot of issues during these marathon talks that ultimately lasted over six days. But the Fianna Fail negotiators thought yesterday afternoon that enough had been offered, that there was more than a sliver of hope that a deal could be forged. But as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that it was all slipping away. The three-person negotiating team for the Green Party went back to the wider reference group (comprised of 12 key members including the six TDs and Dan Boyle). And it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen.

It was always going to be difficult. The gulfs between policy and outlook were of Grand Canyon proportions. The biggest were identified early and were never bridged, were never close to being bridged.

strangely, we look at the potentially explosive mix of the Greens and the PDs and think of blockage. But that was never the issue. Indeed, last night the PDs confirmed that Mary Harney had signed up to a Bertie Ahern-led government on Thursday morning and Brian Cowen said as much yesterday as he entered the talks. And while the Greens say that this did not form any part of the negotiations, it’s clear that there was an – let’s phrase it delicately – an unspoken understanding that the PDs would be part of the mix.

The talks, instead, foundered on ideological gaps on a range of policy areas. Trevor Sargent spelt out some of them at the press conference yesterday.
The Greens, being the Greens, wanted more urgent action on climate change. Nothing would have outranked that from their perspective. This, after all, is what the party is about. Sure it is more savvy politically than in the past but there were core principles like this one that were never going to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

There were no specifics. But it’s as clear as a pikestaff that they argued for carbon taxes and a 3% annual reduction in carbon emissions. It’s likely that it also argued for congestion charges and – of course, another Green pillar – prioritising public transport over road-building.

There were other areas of disagreement. None were specified by either side last night but health, education, planning and local government just proved to be massive stumbling blocks.

"In each of these areas substantial blockages still remain. Because of this, the party does not believe it could enter government and stand over the policy proposals."

What was intriguing was that the talks had no concluded in bitterness or recrimination. They had taken place in a cordial fashion and the Greens had learned a lot during the process. But it was over. There was not enough give from either side.
The Greens could not sell what was on offer to its membership.

And while both sides said yesterday that their doors remained open, it is unlikely that they will revive the process. The gulf is still too wide. Time is against them. It’s almost certain now that Bertie Ahern will pursue the narrower option with the PDs and independents.

Fianna Fail had a massive advantage going into the negotiations. Its 78 seats meant that it didn’t ultimately need the greens, and so winning its support would be mainly a ‘belts and braces’ operation.

Its seriousness was clear - that was immediately evident from the composition of its vastly experienced team of Cowen, Dempsey and Brennan.

From its perspective, the Greens displayed a little naivety at times during negotiations. Cowen and Dempsey put a lot of emphasis on the financial costs of some of the Greens proposals. It was felt that their lack of experience in government gave them a certain lack of appreciation of the money aspects of what they proposed.

Stranger coalitions have been formed since 1948 but those governments have been forged on the anvil of necessity. Here there was none. Ultimately FF could take it or leave it as an optional multiple choice. But in the end, like the A students they are, they decided to stick to what they knew best. Enter Mary Harney, Jackie Healy Rae and Beverly Flynn.

Friday, June 08, 2007


We are still trying to digest the news that the talks between Fianna Fail and the Greens failed and parse the flurry of words we have had since then to get something definite out of them.

There have been conflicting reports on whether this is merely a pause orthe end. Most of the Greens I have spoken to think it's all over, that it's impossible, that the gaps are just too wide.

But some FFers are still saying it's possible, that the famous Green Party meeting on Sunday was maybe a monkey the negotiators needed to get off their backs. Sure, the Dail comes back next Thursday but it doesn't necessarily mean we need to have a Government formed by then. That could be just the prelude for further negotiations with the Greens or - perish the thought - with Labour.

As a property though FF now come with an encumbrance - it's called the Progressive Democrats. That might be biddable for the Greens but not for the Labour Party.

Bertie Ahern said his first option was the PDs and the like-minded independents. But I sense that FF are nervous about that arrangement and its innate instability. While the Greens are now saying that a deal is unlikely, politics can sometime be more that the art of the possible - can elevate itself into the art of the impossible.


Like the changing musical taste of growing teenagers, we also move on in our political tastes. Until a few years ago, I couldn't read enough of Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer. Not any more. I have tired of him, too Blairite, too establishmentarian.I have a soft sport for Boris Johnson with his carefully-cultivated clumsiness. But nowadays, there is only one political writer for me. It's the London Times's Matthew Parris. He's the real deal as the Yanks say. Witty. Erudite. He can also make his prose dance. And never afraid to confront the bigger questions.

Parris is always worth checking out. Here's an extract from a fine column he wrote recently on the imperfections of democracy:

"My final problem with democracy is rooted in the possibility that through ignorance or folly, the public may simply be wrong. There are issues (appeasement in the 1930s was one) where the crowd misunderstands, grabs the wrong end of the stick or wilfully refuses to meet its responsibilities. There are matters of great complexity where decisions may have to run ahead of public understanding: for or against nuclear power, for instance, or for or against GM crops. Sometimes people refuse to accept the inevitable, such as electronic road pricing. And, despite this Government’s squandering of public trust on security issues, there can be things government knows that the people cannot fully know.

These doubts about democracy are more pressing today then when I was a boy. It used to be technically difficult to consult the popular will, except every few years, at a general election. This rescued us from having to ask whether we would want to if we could. But soon we shall be able to. We can be accurately informed almost hourly about majority opinion. Do we wish to bring these techniques into government? I doubt it. Within the concept of focus-grouping lies a central paradox of democracy: ask a focus group if they respect a politician who consults focus groups, and they would say no.

My mother was born before universal adult suffrage reached Britain. Ancient Greek democracy was a fiction: the democracy of the boardroom, not the shop floor. Real democracy is a shockingly new idea, hardly tested. There are serious checks and balances still to devise. We should start from an acceptance that there is nothing sacrosanct about the will of the people.

To me the popular will is like the ocean. It may carry you far. Ignore it – its currents, its lulls and its storms – at your peril. But always distrust it. Learn when to fight it, when to run with it and when to stay in port while a storm blows over. And do not kid yourself, with phrases such as “necessary serenity”, that the democratic ideal is pure, sacrosanct and unimpeachable. Be honest. The majority is often wrong."

You can read his full column here.


I was off for the last couple of days, down in Kerry as it happened, where the eavesdropped conversation in pubs and cafes was mostly - surprise, surprise - about politics and not about Big Brother.

Upon arriving back, I discovered that by missing two full days of talks I had missed, erm, nothing. When the Greens came out of Government buildings last night, they gave the same essential answer they had given for the previous five days... that some progress had been made but that there were significant gaps (or should that read gulf or canyons) between them on policy issues.

Naturally, there was a greater sense of urgency about last night. It had been nominally chosen as the deadline for concluding the talks, given that the Greens must go through a process of putting any potential deal to its party membership.

Dan Boyle's own slightly rueful assessment of it was very telling:

"We went into these talks on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

It seems that we have agreed a lot and then after talking for five days it also seems like we have agreed nothing."

For in reality, the huge gaps that were identified on the very first day of talks last weekend were the ones that looked like denying a deal. They were parked but when they returned to them, it's clear that Fianna Fail wasn't in a mood of being over-generous or of bending over backwards.

FF is in a position of staggering dominance. It doesn't really need the Greens. It has 78 deputies compared to a measly six for the Greens. You can understand where it's coming from. The Greens want to ban corporate donations. It's a core principle for the party, says Trevor Sargent. Well Fianna Fail don't want to ban corporate donations. And it's a core principle for FF. So, FF might agree to make the system a little bit more transparent (or in reality, given the impression that it is making the system more transparent) but otherwise it's not going to budge.

Where does that leave the Greens? It means they have to try to wring concessions from FF in other key areas, where there may be more give. What are they? Environmental issues certainly, including carbon taxes and more robust initiatives to tackle climate change. The health services and the controversial co-location project. The economy, especially FF's determination to reduce the higher rate of tax by a further 1%.

There is a difference in the decision-making process within both parties that has been emphasised by this process. Whatever the political leadership decided in the two big parties, the membership and the other politicians go along with. We've heard a couple of FF backbenchers griping about the Greens this week but if a deal is struck they'll just have to button up and go along with it.

I remember doing a phone-around of FF TDs after the 1992 election. I spoke to about 40 in all. All but one (Micheál Martin, as it happened) swore blind that they'd rather sup with the divvil than go into a coalition with the Labour Party. Then the deal happened and they all meekly went along with it. Harsh political lesson number one. Never forget that FF and FG backbenchers are the chorus line.

With the Greens it's different. Their membership wield a lot of power. A two-thirds majority of the 700-800 delegates expected at the Mansion House will be required. The negotiating team know that they need to present a strong deal with loads of tangibles to sell. If it's seen as too much of a capitulation - a sell-out of the most important core principles to go into Government - it spells only one thing.... c-u-r-t-a-i-n-s.

They've resumed this morning and will be there for another two hours at least, until 1pm and maybe a little later.

And even on the off-chance - and it is an off-chance - that a deal is struck, we may still not have a government. The next stage will be consideration of, and by, the PDs. There's a game of chess being played. Not only aren't we in the room to witness it. We don't know the rules. Worse, we don't even know if there are any rules.

Monday, June 04, 2007


Charlie McCreevy once said that he knew Bertie Ahern better than most and, at that, he knew him only 20%.

Fianna Fail took most people by surprise whey they held their first formal discussions with the Greens yesterday, moving much more quickly than was anticipated to expand their options on forming government.

But anyone who thinks the serious nature of the talks with the Greens – and the seriousness is particularly evident from the smaller party – signifies that this is now the option the FF is pursuing is mistaken.

At the same time, Fianna Fail is doing its business on all fronts. Dealings are continuing with the rump of the PDs and also with the independents – significantly Michael Lowry issued his first statement yesterday confirming that he too had been contacted by the Government.

He said: "I accepted an invitation from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to negotiate on the terms of my involvement in a cross-party alliance to provide a stable government."

The latest overture by Fianna Fail to Lowry brings to twelve the number of TDs it might include in government.

Sources in Fianna Fail have spoken about forming its own kind of rainbow, with the PDs, the Greens and independents.

The downside of that arrangement is that Fianna Fail would have sacrifice more cabinet positions than what its own TDs consider necessary – at least two senior ministries (one each to the PDs and, at the very minimum, to the Greens) and at least two so-called ‘super junior’ ministries.

The other is that the Greens are to some FF rural TDs what reds were to McCarthyite Americans in the 1950s. They look at the Greens’ stances on corporate donations, on roads, on carbon taxes, on once-off housing and they see meddlers. However, of all the parties, FF backbenchers know their place and if a deal is struck with the deals, they will go along with it obediently while grumbling privately.

There’s a couple of problems for the Greens too, that are not all that easy to get over. For one, Trevor Sargent will have to step down as leader if they do a deal with Fianna Fail or else he will be accused of blatant inconsistency.

Secondly, the party is going to have a tough job convincing its members – and its potential supporters in future elections – that it is doing right by the country by going into government while at the same time ceding some of its core principles including a ban on corporate donations; carbon taxes, and transport policies.

The party really wants to go into government. But a sardonic political veteran observed yesterday. “If the Green Party is prepared to compromise on core principles so that it can wallow in high office, they will get hammered.”

From the moment that a third-term was confirmed, Mr Ahern has continued to speak about a Government of stability and longevity. In other words, what he wants is one that lasts for five years, come hell, high water, or further damaging Tribunal allegations.

Part of that equation is numbers. If he has four or five TDs above the magic 83 mark, it will allow the Government some breathing space, and make the government of the country over the next five years less of a hairy roller-coaster ride, where the government will always be vulnerable to a defection or an illness that gives the opposition a chance to defeat the government in the chamber.

However, the corporate memory within Fianna Fail still has bitter memories of the manner in which the most secure majority of all time – that with the Labour Party in 1992 – fell asunder amid mutual recrimination just two years later.

We tend to attribute a Machiavellian slant to everything Ahern says, and McCreevy's 20% assessment gives credence to this. But maybe he's been right all along and his preferred solution is the PDs and independents and he’s sounding out the Greens just to see if it’s a feasible option.

In another sense, he may be playing them all off one against the other to maximise FF’s negotiating position and minimise what the smaller parties might demand in relation to ministries and policy concessions.

And there are some who say that all of this talking is a prelude to FF approaching Labour with an unbeatable offer in the run-up to June 14th, knowing that it has at least one or two other deals in the bag.

The only thing that’s certain is that Fianna Fail has all the chips on its side of the table and is in a powerful position.

But trouble may be coming down the tracks in the shape of the Quarryvale module and the fresh questions facing Mr Ahern.

There’s an element of ‘don’t mention the war’ about this issue. It’s quite possible that a deal can be negotiated with ‘moral high ground’ parties. Of course, the $64,000 question is the $45,000 question, if you get the drift. Will that be conveniently long-fingered for future consideration.

Expect a long week of horse-trading ahead.


I found myself at the wrong end of a Tom McGurk and John Waters onslaught this morning on radio - forced to act, by proxy, as a reluctant defender of the Greens (and I don't think I rounded my thoughts as convincingly as I might have).

But that's besides the point. John Waters has argued that there's an innate and inherent bias against FF in the media and by its commentariat. I'm not sure if that is true. Nor do I believe it's true, as he suggested last week, that very few called it right. There were many other voices in the media who suggested in the run-up to the election that FF would win - though none suggested they would win big.

Most journalists based their predictions (and their analysis) not on any fatuous wish-fulfillment for the soft left or prejudice against FF, but on the only evidence that was available to them - the opinion polls. The same polls waxed and waned during the 25 days of the campaign. And it meant that many journalists, who are creatures of the moment, swayed with whichever way the wind was blowing. In the main, the writing reflected this flux and the volatility (and I'm including my own in this). Sure there's a question about our almost craven reliance on opinion polls. And perhaps, in retrospect, journalists over-estimated the impact of the BertieGate allegations. But that's a reflection (sadly) of superficiality - not of any deep-seated ideological prejudice. And, what nobody predicted, even FFers themselves, was the sheer ease of the FF victory.

Sure, it's undoubtedly true that a number of journalists and commentators wanted FF out or wanted FG or Labour or the Greens in (and maybe that was reflected in their copy). But a majority? No way. To be sure, does the portrayal of the media as a homogeneous Dublin 4 smoked salmon set hold any water any more? Has the media really been stuck in some Palestinian scarf time warp while the real Ireland has moved on with real life? Hardly.

The under-reckoning (by everybody) of FF's stunning support level will need a fair deal of parsing. Sure, I agree totally with John Waters that there's a disconnect between what the media are clearly very interested in (Bertie's finances) and what the public are clearly not all interested in (Bertie's finances).

But, in all seriousness, could journalists have ignored or downplayed that story during the campaign, once the material got into the public domain? Sure, the timing was horrible for FF and for Ahern. Sure, he argued trenchantly that the circumstances surrounding his house rental and purchase were completely unconnected to the claim by Tom Gilmartin (one that's categorically disputed by Ahern) that Owen O'Callaghan had given Ahern £80,000. The timing and nature of the leaks was very unfair. It's also true to say that whoever was behind the leads was intent on damaging him politically.

But irrespective of source or motive, once the details about his house leaked out (especially the non-salary monies that were given to him, or passed through his hands) it would have been remiss of the media not to ask the kind of questions that journalists have asked since time immemorial, without fear or favour.

I don't think Waters was arguing against that, rather saying that the over-concentration on this (to the exclusion of everything else) placed a mote in the eye when it came to the mood, sentiments, and views of the electorate. And that, of course, is self-evidently true.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


I remember having a chat with a friend of mine a good few years ago about the nature of Irish political parties. He also happened to be a fiery believer in the one true faith. His hackles would be raised very pronto indeed if you inferred that an Anorak was a less than immaculate garment.

“Sure, Fianna Fail and Bertie Ahern, they stand for nothing!” I said.

He pondered for a second before replying.

“That’s not true. They are the party of Government. That’s what they do. So they stand for everything.”

We need to re-order our phraseology. When the term ‘permanent government’ is used, it refers to the civil service. But in Ireland it could almost mean Fianna Fail. The party has been in government for all of 75 years now, save for a couple of interruptions. And failing some mid-term disaster, its latest run will have been for a full quarter century minus the two and a half years of the Rainbow.

How does FF and Bertie Ahern do it? What is the trick they use? Does the anorak turn itself inside out to reveal a magic multi-coloured dreamcoat? Not quite. But like racing pigeons, Fianna Fail has its own version of an inbuilt homing device that makes sure it reaches its rightful destination – Government Buildings, 1 Merrion Street, Dublin 2.

Over the past 15 years, it has swayed a bit to the left (to accommodate Labour), a little bit to the right (for the PDs) and a little bit to the left again when Ahern (ingeniously) copped on that Charlie McCreevy, in the eyes of the Irish electorate, was beginning to look more Boyzone than Westlife.

So he was ditched. A long way out – as far back as its think-in in Sligo in September 2005 – Fianna Fail decided that what would win the election was what every other government or prospective government use to win elections – the economy.

And it was the economy that ultimately won it the election, with a dollop of the ‘caring and sharing’ strategy that came post-McCreevy. It out-trumped the referendum on health. It out-trumped the media’s exposure of Ahern’s credibility gaps. It out-trumped the so-called crime crisis. It out-trumped all the quality of life issues that had parents hold parties for their kids at 6.30 in the morning before getting ensnared in traffic, congestion and 24-7 hassle.

It’s been pointed out before but where FF won most spectacularly was where all those problems were supposedly at their worst, in Dublin and in the constituencies that necklace the capital. Fianna Fail supporters now include a new genus, or class of human being. In the Thatcherite eighties, it was called Sierra Man... the working class man who was able to afford a Ford Sierra thanks to Thatcherism.

Our version here is called Breakfast Roll Man, as Ivan Yates neatly coined it - the guy with his own house in the suburbs (mostly far-flung) who has done alright from Celtic Tiger Ireland, but works very hard for it (hence the early morning breakfast roll) and worries that it may all disappear.

Last weekend, Bertie Ahern pointed out that he was now the father of the European Council. There was a teensy-weensy bit of self-preening there, a subtle reminder that he outlasted Schroeder; Berlusconi; Chirac and even Blair.

Looking at it from the outside, the most solid possible combination, numbers-wise, would be a link-up with the Greens, the two remaining PDs, with the two ex-FF independents thrown in. But that involves a few problems that may prove to be insuperable. Going in with the Greens would mean forfeiting at least one more ministry on top of the one given to Harney.

For me, there would be an attraction to the Greens being there – because sometimes you suspect FF’s policies in on the environment sound like nought but mouth (or should that be nil by mouth?). But then there’s an antipathy to the Greens that extends from its rural backbenchers to the two men at the helm, Ahern and Brian Cowen - both of whom have railed against the Green’s criticisms of FF’s relationship with the construction industry.

For them, to echo Ciaran Cuffe, treating with the Greens would be a deal with a devil. However, there are a few others – notably Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey – who would be more enthusiastic about a coalescing.

What FF really want is a long-lasting government that is tribunal-proofed. But that’s where the real problem lies. Sure Ahern has seen off Tribunal accusations twice – emphatically both times. But you can’t get away from it – there’s a discrepancy between his last statement and the Tribunal’s opening statement this week. He says Celia Larkin lodged 30 grand sterling. The bank branch’s own records show only £1,900 sterling came in that day.

That’s a major problem. And in the normal course of events, you would expect the PDs to raise it. But there’s nothing normal about the situation the PDS find themselves in. The party’s quandary is can you afford a moral conscience when the name of the game is survival? This will also pose difficulties for the Greens, should they be asked to the party. Will they look for assurances, or be content to await Ahern’s evidence to the Tribunal?

Sure, Ahern has had two whopping wins on this issue. But Haughey saw off his detractors in spectacular fashion before limping out tamely in the end. If it drags on, there’s a chance that Ahern’s legs will begin to go and he will find that he – like all the others – is obsolescent. Remember it’s a party of permanent government not of permanent leadership.

A version of this appeared in this mornings Irish Examiner