Friday, June 08, 2007


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.

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