WAGS in Leinster House were at their cynical worst on Friday. “The deal has been stitched up for days,” volunteered one senator.
“Big Phil Hogan, Pat Rabbitte, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin have been playing bridge for three nights in a row to relieve the boredom,” responded an Independent TD.
Of course the negotiators felt compelled to paint a fraught atmosphere at the ultra-smooth Fine Gael/ Labour talks. Word kept leaking about the “difficulties”. The tangible harmony inside the Sycamore Room in Government Buildings could cause unease among party foot soldiers. The faithful, watching from the sidelines, expected skin and hair to be flying by now as the two teams traded long treasured principles.
Not this hardened bunch. They threw them out the window into Merrion Street on day one.
Well-placed whispers to the media revealed a few titbits. The Irish Times obligingly helped to convey an atmosphere of conflict with Friday’s strap line that “Tensions over the Finance post threatened to derail process”.
No one really doubted that Fine Gael’s Michael Noonan would win the plumb portfolio, but as there was never the remotest danger of the horse-trading breaking down on matters of policy, a row over the cabinet posts was the only good yarn.
So certain were the two party leaders of a happy conclusion that they coolly left the country for fringe meetings in Europe. Enda Kenny headed for Helsinki in the hope of another photo op with Angela Merkel, while Eamon Gilmore took a flight to Athens to mingle with his dull Greek socialist friends. Enda was due back yesterday afternoon to rubber-stamp the deal. Eamon will ram it through a party conference, probably tomorrow.
These guys fell into each others arms months ago. Any observer of the camaraderie in Leinster House over the years knows that their 14 years in the political wilderness of opposition have united them in one common mission: power. To hell with policy, it is time to divide the spoils.
Spoils first, policy later.
As a newly elected Independent TD, I have not been hanging around the telephone in expectation of a call from Enda or one of his minions. There is little doubt that he could cobble together a deal with the necessary seven Independents if he was so minded. But he is not. He will wed the Labour Party. Some believe it is a little strange that he has not made a few calls to Independents simply to put pressure on Labour. It might put the fear of God into them. On past history one or two independents could be picked off with constituency cuddling, while others among us could talk turkey if Enda was prepared to concede radical policy shifts and to embrace the new politics.
Enda and Eamon do not do “radical”. It could mean Enda standing up to Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. It could mean a referendum on the EU deal. It could mean stinging the bondholders or, as Enda prefers to call it, “burden sharing”.
On Friday, it was apparent that Fine Gael had thrown in the towel on “burden sharing”. On RTE’s nine o’clock news, Enda — speaking from Helsinki — was openly acknowledging the resistance from fellow right-wing parties in Europe to his recent election claims that the EU/ IMF deal could be changed. His European Peoples’ Party friends had despatched him with a flea in his ear. So, instead, he held out the lame prospect of an interest rate cut to ease our repayments.
He was rebuffed. On the same bulletin his one-time friend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, made almost bellicose noises, insisting that countries seeking aid must give something in return. Angela was launching a veiled attack on Ireland’s 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate.
Enda is in no mood for challenging Angela. Nor is Eamon, by all accounts. They want to butter up, not to irritate, their respective colleagues in Europe.
Neither man has looked at the “independent” option. They have eyes only for each other. Which may seem a little odd, considering that Enda allies himself with the right in Europe while Eamon mixes it with the socialists.
The coalition deal will be a monumental fudge. It will not fool anyone but it will be signed, sealed and delivered by noon on Wednesday.
Last week, when I was being “inducted” as a new TD, I spoke to several Fine Gael and Labour backbenchers. One Labour newcomer told me that he was unsure whether he would vote for the programme for government. A Fine Gael TD was adamant that Enda could — and should — be talking to the 19 Independents before he stitched up a deal with Eamon and his lefties.
Sadly this deal is being struck deep in the two leaders’ comfort zone. The older civil war politicians of Fine Gael and the stale socialists of Labour are too timid to embrace the real change championed by some in the independent group. Fine Gael will prefer to prop up the Croke Park Agreement to confronting the friends of Labour in the trades unions. They will happily surrender on the 2014 target date for reducing the budget deficit. They will succumb to a Labour Party demand for another layer of taxation. They may even agree to a property tax. Their promises to cut 145 quangos might have to be shelved to protect Labour sensitivities.
Never mind, Michael Noonan will land the Finance prize. Joan Burton will be given the pick of the other ministries. Big Phil will take Enterprise and Employment before sailing off as European Commissioner when Maire Geogheghan-Quinn retires. Pat Rabbitte is set for Justice. Richard Bruton can suffer a bit of purgatory in Education, while Brian Hayes may be punished for earlier sins of sedition by forcing him to take Health.
Job allocations will be the only disputed decisions while policies take a back seat, dictated elsewhere, but rubber-stamped during breaks in the game of bridge.
Policy was well taken care of by both parties with their ‘Get out of Jail’ card printed a few years ago. Fine Gael and Labour negotiators looked at the nation’s books last week and ran from the Sycamore Room kicking and screaming to the media that the figures were “worse than they thought”.
Manifestos are on the back burner. Promises are postponed. The boys will have jobs. Old politics will be restored.