Min­is­ters’ con­fi­dence in sup­ply of tea and bis­cuits

Irish Examiner - - Forum - DANIEL McCON­NELL

“Ah, we are not do­ing much, only seek­ing to de­ter­mine the fu­ture course of our coun­try” — a quip from one se­nior politi­cian when asked how the talks have been go­ing, amid chat­ter that the two sides are sim­ply sit­ting around drink­ing tea all day.

The rou­tine has be­come the same. They exit the back of Le­in­ster House and walk up the nar­row al­ley­way to­wards the back of Agri­cul­ture House, pri­mar­ily to avoid the me­dia around the front on Kil­dare St.

They as­cend the stairs to the sec­ond floor to one of two rooms that have been set aside for the pur­pose of the talks aimed at ex­tend­ing the life of the frag­ile mi­nor­ity Fine Gael gov­ern­ment.

The meet­ings are be­ing held on the same floor where the Na­tional Emer­gency Co-or­di­na­tion Com­mit­tee is lo­cated.

The Fianna Fáil team, made up of deputy leader Dara Cal­leary; fi­nance spokesman Michael McGrath; Brexit spokes­woman Lisa Cham­bers; and agri­cul­ture spokesman Char­lie McCono­logue, as well as Micheál Mar­tin’s chef-de-cab­i­net, Deirdre Gil­lane.

The Fine Gael team, made up of Fi­nance Min­is­ter Paschal Dono­hoe; Tá­naiste Si­mon Coveney; So­cial Pro­tec­tion Min­is­ter Regina Do­herty; and party chair­man Mar­tin Hey­don; along with Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar’s chief of staff Brian Mur­phy.

The sides first met on Oc­to­ber 25 in room 741 in Le­in­ster House, a small non­de­script space sit­u­ated right at the bridge be­tween the Dáil and Gov­ern­ment Build­ings, but it was deemed too small and not suit­able for the sen­si­tive na­ture of the talks.

An early slip-up by Fine Gael threat­ened to de­rail the process be­fore it even be­gan. That af­ter­noon, the party’s press of­fice is­sued a no­tice that its team would be out on the plinth to dis­cuss the day’s progress, only to be can­celled a short time later.

Fianna Fáil’s Gil­lane and Mar­tin ob­jected, say­ing to do so would un­der­mine trust and it was made clear that no brief­ings should oc­cur if the talks were to suc­ceed.

A short time later, a joint state­ment was is­sued say­ing “it was a good, con­struc­tive first meet­ing” and not­ing that both par­ties have agreed a sched­ule for next week.

“Both par­ties agreed not to do me­dia doorsteps af­ter meet­ings,” the state­ment from a chas­tened Fine Gael press of­fice read.

Given the un­hap­pi­ness with the orig­i­nal venue, by the times the sides met again, the rooms in “Ag House” were deemed far more ap­pro­pri­ate and have proved sat­is­fac­tory.

Ev­ery day, talks have hap­pened, poor qual­ity tea and cof­fee is laid out for the teams along with ba­sic bis­cuits, which pri­mar­ily re­main un­touched. “Some are try­ing to be good, oth­ers found them dis­gust­ing,” was how one source put it.

The room in which the talks have taken place is a func­tional, glass-walled space which over­looks the back of the De­part­ment of Fi­nance on Mer­rion St.

While Fine Gael is seek­ing a two-year ex­ten­sion to the agree­ment with an agreed elec­tion date in 2020, Fianna Fáil has been re­luc­tant to ac­cept that — with the out­come of the re­view to in­form the progress of ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Fianna Fáil has in­sisted on call­ing the process so far “a re­view of the three bud­gets al­ready passed” as op­posed to “talks look­ing to the fu­ture”.

Meet­ings be­tween the sides have not been chaired by any­one and have so far been “calm, pro­fes­sional and cor­dial”. How­ever, both teams have said the tone has been “good hu­moured” at times with Tues­day’s Brexit chaos bring­ing hi­lar­ity to the room.

The is­sues of health and hous­ing have dom­i­nated and at times the dis­cus­sions have been de­scribed as be­ing of a “highly tech­ni­cal na­ture”.

“We are ap­proach­ing it in good faith,” said one source.

At the be­gin­ning, the two sides ex­changed pa­pers re­lat­ing to their po­si­tions on is­sues from health to jus­tice, from ed­u­ca­tion to hous­ing.

How­ever, a crit­i­cal de­ci­sion was taken not to get into those first in a bid to build trust be­tween the sides.

“We haven’t got­ten to the two pa­pers which were ex­changed. We didn’t want to start the process with an ar­gu­ment about what has and hasn’t been done,” a source said.

Asked to de­scribe the tone and tenor of ex­changes so far, both sides have been fairly con­sis­tent in their views. “What is ab­sent is the pan­tomime of the Dáil cham­ber, which is a the­atre. Th­ese have been con­struc­tive dis­cus­sions largely in the space of re­view­ing the de­liv­ery of mat­ters,” said one.

This week, the sides met on Tues­day, Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day, hav­ing met for five hours the Thurs­day be­fore dur­ing the re­cess. That was un­usual as the teams are now mostly en­gag­ing in two-hour ses­sions, break­ing for tea and then go­ing back in. “You grab a soup and sand­wich be­fore you go in,” said one weary source.

This week, se­nior of­fi­cials from the de­part­ments of Health and Hous­ing, in­clud­ing sec­re­taries gen­eral, Jim Bres­lin and John McCarthy, have been in the talks and de­liv­ered highly de­tailed brief­ings to both sides.

It has emerged that they have at times, bro­ken off with one side and then the other, when spe­cific de­tails have been sought.

“This part of it is get­ting the se­nior of­fi­cials to give us a di­rect brief- ing, then they leave, then we are in the room with of­fi­cials then it is the other side’s turn,” one source said.

The dis­cus­sions on health have proved to be far more time-con­sum­ing than what was ex­pected.

“It is like peel­ing off a plas­ter and dis­cov­er­ing the wound is worse than feared. Each ques­tion raises more ques­tions and it is tak­ing time,” said one source.

“If there are any sen­si­tive ar­eas, and health and hous­ing cer­tainly are, we are try­ing to lift the bon­net and take a look at what the pic­ture,” said an­other.

On Thurs­day, the is­sue of hous­ing came to the fore with Fianna Fáil de­mand­ing clar­ity as to why there has been such so lit­tle progress on bring­ing voided so­cial hous­ing units back on stream.

Fianna Fáil have sought to hone in on the prom­ise in the 2016 deal to “sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease and ex­pe­dite the de­liv­ery of so­cial hous­ing units, re­move bar­ri­ers to pri­vate hous­ing sup­ply and ini­ti­ate an af­ford­able hous­ing scheme”.

“In terms of a lack of de­liv­ery, that is what we are try­ing to do is ex­am­in­ing why things are so slow, like in hous­ing the is­sue of voids, so we are go­ing back again and again on things.

“Ob­vi­ously, civil ser­vants will al­ways have more de­tails as to why things are not mov­ing fast enough and they are ob­jec­tive when stat­ing facts,” a source said.

From the Fianna Fáil side, while not in gov­ern­ment, they are not in con­trol of the fig­ures and this process al­lows them be “as foren­sic as you can be from op­po­si­tion”.

What is clear from both camps is that the in­de­pen­dence of the civil ser­vice is be­ing re­spected and they are not be­ing pulled into any sort of po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions.

While Gil­lane and Mur­phy are there to sup­port their po­lit­i­cal col­leagues, pre­dictably Dono­hoe and Coveney have been most ac­tive on the Fine Gael side, with Cal­leary and McGrath the most vo­cal on the other.

How­ever, the oth­ers too have all played their part and not been afraid to get stuck in on their ar­eas of con­cern.

At the end of most days, each team with­draws to de­brief on the day’s talks. Fine Gael re­groups back in Gov­ern­ment Build­ings while the Fianna Fáil­ers have re­treated back to their of­fices in LH2000, the newer block of of­fices within Le­in­ster House.

Next week, talks are to fo­cus on the thorny is­sues of jus­tice, fi­nance, and ed­u­ca­tion, and much at­ten­tion is be­ing paid to the Smyth au­dit on the Na­tional Broad­band process, which was or­dered af­ter De­nis Naugh­ten’s res­ig­na­tion.

So far, so good, is the con­sen­sus mood, it ap­pears. Both know this can­not go on for­ever, but nei­ther side ap­pears des­per­ate to call a halt to it any­time soon, es­pe­cially in light of the Brexit un­cer­tainty.

Stormier seas lie ahead.

Pic­tures: PA

The talks on ex­tend­ing the con­fi­dence and sup­ply ar­range­ment be­tween Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been pro­gress­ing smoothly so far, with Tá­naiste Si­mon Coveney be­ing very ac­tive for the gov­ern­ment side. While Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar has said he wants a two-year ex­ten­sion, Micheál Mar­tin’s party is re­luc­tant to com­mit to an ex­ten­sion.

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