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.

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