Monday 26 September 2016

The inside story: Turf, pizza and a pint for Enda after 70 long days

Our new Government is the product of some of the most tense and extraordinary set of negotiations ever, writes Kevin Doyle

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald with their fellow Cabinet members pose for an official photo at Aras an Uachtarain. Photo: Maxwells
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald with their fellow Cabinet members pose for an official photo at Aras an Uachtarain. Photo: Maxwells

JUST when it seemed like it had all finally come together Kevin 'Boxer' Moran vanished.

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The members of the Independent Alliance were all lined up in the ministerial corridor that links Government Buildings to Leinster House, ready to make a grand, united entrance that would calm the Dail chamber and the nation.

But Boxer was gone and momentary panic spread as two of the group's advisors were dispatched to search for the hero of the Athlone floods.

One scurried towards the Department of An Taoiseach to see if he had gone back, the other bolted towards the Dail where he was told that the giddy minister-to-be was already in situ.

To some extent the Independents were not fully aware of the angst they were causing on all sides of the House as the clock ticked by and the pointless speeches became more improvised. The irony hasn't been lost on the rural TDs that the wifi around Government Buildings is "appalling".

In the Dail, deputies' thumbs were on the verge of repetitive strain injury from swiping Twitter in the hope that some journalist had updated the latest rumour about the ongoing 'turf war'.

Enda Kenny was playing with his fingers. The soon-to-be health minister Simon Harris had to ask an usher to take his phone away and charge it up again.

What was really going on back in Government Buildings? Were the Independents trying to teach Fine Gael a lesson for being so impetuous as to put a high noon deadline on their votes? Or was the whole thing really about to collapse in the most unedifying way imaginable?

It was obvious Enda Kenny didn't know - but the answer goes back to Wednesday evening. It was at that stage Fine Gael decided to start turning the screw, with the ever optimistic Paschal Donohoe telling the Independents they should be ready to vote the following day.

His suggestion was met with a hostile response, but it was decided that Friday would work if the draft Programme for Government was made available first thing on Thursday.

Members of the Independent Alliance accepted it was going to be a late night and were back in a room upstairs in Government Buildings with Michael Noonan and Simon Coveney when Frances Fitzgerald popped her head in and asked if anybody was hungry.

Eyes lifted in her direction and words were barely necessary. "I'll see what I can do," she replied.

Shortly before 9pm the Taoiseach's personal assistant Jack O'Donnell arrived back with stacks of boxes from Apache Pizza. Everybody tucked in.

"It was the equivalent of somebody saying 'we'll all be friends over a pint'," said one insider. "There is nothing that makes men more equal than when you're passing around lumps of pizza and have a string of cheese running down your arm."

Eventually they adjourned and the Independents went home for a few hours' sleep. It was after 4am when the Fine Gael team finally switched off their computers, but the document still wasn't ready for print.

When it did land on Thursday afternoon, the mood shifted again. There were far more demands for change than Kenny's team had anticipated.

But still the stakes were so high that the ministers were afraid to drive anybody offside for fear of causing a domino effect. As a result they knowingly wasted hours appeasing some TDs.

"Mattie McGrath was never going to support the Government and Michael Collins was on the radio every morning saying he wouldn't - yet they were still in Government Buildings 12 hours out from the vote eating sandwiches and drinking tea," said one Fine Gael source.

Michael Healy-Rae was still in the game too, but as far as Kenny was concerned his moment had passed.

The Kerry TD was offered a junior ministry but was holding out for a place at the Cabinet table. Sources say the Taoiseach was minded to give one to him at the start of the process.

However, Danny going AWOL weakened his card. And Michael had largely orchestrated the wholesale abstention during the third Dail vote for Taoiseach.

"Had he backed Kenny that day he would have got a similar reward to Katherine Zappone," a negotiator said.

Ultimately it all came down to Shane Ross's Independent Alliance. They continued to insist it was an "all for one and one for all" approach, standing firmly by John Halligan until he got a deal on Waterford Hospital, then by Shane Ross until his demands on judicial appointments were met, with Sean Canney until Fine Gael reworded their commitments on the Western Rail Corridor, and by Kevin 'Boxer' Moran when he took issue with the tourism section.

The Alliance desperately wanted to bring Michael Fitzmaurice in with them but Fine Gael was growing suspicious that he wanted to make a 'principled' exit.

After midnight on Thursday there was a breakthrough on turf and he shook with then heritage minister Heather Humphries on what sources describe as a "political solution" to the impasse.

Early on Friday morning though it hit the ropes again. Both sides engaged senior counsels to debate EU rules governing turf cutting and Fine Gael said they would do "almost anything" for him but would "not break the law".

Kenny was due back from a meeting of his TDs at 11am for a final face-to-face with the Independents before the vote, but he "strolled" in at 11.20am.

His staff were all dressed in their best and a photographer was hired to wait in the corridors of Government Buildings taking photos of the historic occasion.

"The whole thing was bizarre. On one level the pomp and ceremony was under way and on another, there was a nervous tension that it was all about to disintegrate."

Fitzmaurice told the others to go ahead without them. He didn't want "to hold the country to ransom" over a bog.

Kenny called Shane Ross to his office to discuss ministries. His request for three places in Cabinet got short shrift.

Ross went back to meet with his other TDs, asking their advisors to leave the room so they could debate in private. The option of rotating junior ministries sealed the deal. Boxer Moran and Canney flipped a coin to decide who got to go first. Canney won but made a gentleman's agreement to hand over the keys after a year.

Back in the Dail after two hours of filibustering a note was passed to Enda Kenny and relief swept over his face.

Never in his life was he so happy to see the sight of Shane Ross walking down the steps into the chamber.

After he returned from the Aras, another of Kenny's personal assistants, Sarah Moran, began making phone calls to prospective ministers.

At 6.15pm, hours behind schedule, Kenny led his new team back to the chamber, ignoring the tradition which dictates that they enter in order of length of service.

The Taoiseach ordered that the four female members come first, including the two first-timers Katherine Zappone and Mary Mitchell O'Connor.

Leo Varadkar had earlier told his consistency colleague Joan Burton cryptically that he "needed to have a word".

As he sat down she joined the dots and leaned forward to ask "is it true?". He nodded, causing her to gasp and fall back into her seat giggling with her hand to her mouth.

She wasn't the only one surprised by his move to social protection.

Later the new Cabinet piled onto a bus to the Aras. Leo sat beside Super Junior Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe. His leadership rival Simon Coveney was on his own - and down the back Simon Harris shared banter with Shane Ross and Finian McGrath.

It was around 1am when Enda arrived back in the Gingerman Pub around the corner from Leinster House at the end of a very long 70 days.

Sunday Independent

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