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