Cowen does U-turn over talks with opposition
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen performed a spectacular U-turn over cross-party talks on the Budget last night in an attempt to avoid being blamed for the failure to achieve agreement.
He also healed relations with the Green Party, breathing life into their talks proposal by inviting the opposition leaders to face-to-face meetings.
The invitation emerged after further contact between Mr Cowen and Green Party leader John Gormley.
After almost a week of a distinctly cool response from Mr Cowen to the Environment Minister's idea, the Taoiseach wrote directly to Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, inviting them to talks to see if a "consensus" could be reached on the four-year 'super-Budget'.
The Greens' dismay at the Taoiseach's lack of enthusiasm for their plan had been a source of considerable tension between the coalition parties.
Mr Cowen said the first goal of the meetings would be to ensure that the main parties "share the objective of putting the public finances back on a sustainable footing by 2014".
"That, I believe, would send a strong signal to our European Union colleagues and the international markets that the main political parties here are at one in their determination to achieve that objective and do so in line with the commitments that this Government has made in the context of our membership of the eurozone," he said.
Before the letter was sent, Fine Gael had given its strongest indication yet that it wouldn't be participating in the talks because of the lack of support from Mr Cowen.
The party's finance spokesman Michael Noonan blamed the Taoiseach for throwing a "bucket of cold water" on his coalition partners' idea.
However, after receiving the letter, Fine Gael reacted far more positively than Labour to the invitation. Enda Kenny said he would meet the Taoiseach and welcomed Mr Cowen's change in position.
"Well, I welcome the Taoiseach's letter and I will respond to it very positively," Mr Kenny said last night.
"The Taoiseach has asked for a meeting with me and I would be very happy to do that. It certainly represents a change in attitude. I thank him for seeing the light in this regard at least."
But a Labour spokesman last night said the party was "totally confused" about the Government's position. "The letter represents a very significant U-turn from the position adopted by the Taoiseach in the Dail yesterday," he said.
"We don't know what's going on in Government Buildings, whether this is the result of Gormley and the Greens throwing a tantrum and insisting that Mr Cowen backs them."
However, he said that the party would consider the letter.
The Greens said Mr Cowen's letter bore out their view all along that the Taoiseach was "fully supportive" of their idea.
But they also hinted at the motivation behind Mr Cowen's sudden enthusiasm for the talks.
"We understand he disliked the characterisation by the opposition that he was blocking talks," a spokesman said.
Mr Noonan was speaking after his visit to the Department of Finance, where he expressed satisfaction that he would be given information of the quality that would be in the supporting documents on Budget Day, with "all the micro- and macro-economic data".
"What is happening now has never happened before. We're getting information in advance of when it would become public," he said.
Labour's finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said she was due to visit the department tomorrow to get further budgetary information.
But she pointed out that Mr Cowen had told her in the Dail that the issue of a new universal social contribution (to replace levies and PRSI payments) was a budgetary taxation matter.
"If that's the approach they're adopting, it's not satisfactory at all," she said.