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.