Fionnan Sheahan: Botched consensus bid only highlights divisions
Published 09/10/2010 | 05:00
Failing to cover himself in any glory, Gormley was as clear as mud and merely served to confuse the situation
John Gormley really only had himself to blame as the Green Party's plan to get cross-party talks going on the formulation of a four-year Budget went down in flames yesterday.
A reasonable idea to give the public some hope -- the political classes getting together to make some collective effort to address the public finances -- ended up as further confirmation of this Government's lack of cohesion.
The Environment Minister neither knew exactly what he wanted to achieve nor how to execute it.
The notion was conceived in discussions at parliamentary party meetings involving the Greens' ministers, TDs and senators. Junior Minister Mary White was the first to run the gauntlet two days ago by suggesting that consensus was required on the Budget.
But Gormley really got the ball rolling when he said the economic crisis was now so serious it had gone beyond party politics.
"It's gone way beyond that, it's about the future of this country and that is why we need a great deal of national consensus on these issues at this stage and, if necessary, going forward, we have to look at the option of national government."
And that's where he got himself into trouble.
Gormley mentioned the "national government" four times -- and yet he bizarrely claimed his comments were "misconstrued" when it was reported he was calling for a national government.
Failing to cover himself in any glory, Gormley was as clear as mud and merely served to confuse the situation.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen was less than enamoured by his coalition partner putting the issue of a national government on the agenda.
His cabinet colleague Eamon Ryan attempted to clarify matters by saying what the party was looking for was cross-party talks to see where there were similarities or differences on policies in terms of views of spending cuts and tax hikes.
The second big mistake Gormley made was not making the offer to the other leaders privately before going public.
But the Greens' big idea got a less than warm reception from the other parties -- most notably Fianna Fail.
Avoiding dismissing fresh thinking outright, Fine Gael and the Labour Party were obviously suspicious, but channelled their criticism into a call for a general election.
Already Cowen was annoyed at Gormley's bungling, so he didn't feel any obligation to weigh in behind him on the talks idea.
Besides, the Taoiseach felt Gormley was putting the cart before the horse, calling for a meeting before anybody had even looked at the figures -- a facility Cowen had offered to the opposition parties.
"I made an offer last Friday, I took the initiative last Friday. The opposition parties must be given the opportunity to take up that offer," he said.
"I want to see the maximum possible buy-in for a plan, but I can't dictate it or prejudge it or predetermine it. But Government will discharge its responsibility so we have to get on with our job."
Giving the opposition access to an official from the Department of Finance is hardly the same as embracing them into the budgetary process.
The tribal nature of Cowen's political background meant he was always unlikely to buy into the concept anyway.
By last night, the Greens efforts to bring about consensus merely served to highlight the divisions within the coalition parties.