Friday 28 October 2016

This broad-brush agreement is largely positive - but there's still little love lost between the two big parties

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Pictured is Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin TD, centre, with, from left, Michael McGrath TD, Jim O'Callaghan TD, Barry Cowen TD, Dara Calleary TD, Fiona O'Loughlan TD, Charlie McConalogue TD and Eugene Murphy TD talking to the media at the Dail this evening. Photo:
Pictured is Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin TD, centre, with, from left, Michael McGrath TD, Jim O'Callaghan TD, Barry Cowen TD, Dara Calleary TD, Fiona O'Loughlan TD, Charlie McConalogue TD and Eugene Murphy TD talking to the media at the Dail this evening. Photo:

This deal is a first in a number of ways. A first ever written arrangement between an incoming main party of government and main opposition party on how a minority government can work.

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A first ever written agreement between the two big political beasts and rivals - Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - on the future government of the country. A first ever arrangement accompanied by a solemn guarantee from the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, that they will try their best to operate this deal honourably.

We shall follow all these matters closely - especially that solemn guarantee. But for now we are entitled to give all sides a fair wind because we badly need a workable government as soon as ever possible.

Critics will rightly say that is a very slight document in many topic areas. But it also touches on many aspects of Irish life, including policing, industrial relations, childcare, housing, homelessness and mortgage distress, hospitals and mental health.

It is not the Programme of Government which will be the centre-piece of the emerging minority coalition. That is now a work in progress in ongoing talks with the various Independent TDs and Fine Gael.

A Fine Gael-Independent deal is likely, but far from being a foregone conclusion. Indeed it may take longer to deliver than we would expect.

The main surprise in this document, aimed at under-pinning government up to the end of 2018, is that it took three weeks for the two big parties to conclude it.

The slight nature of "A Confidence and Supply Arrangement for a Fine Gael-led Government" should if anything re-double the Independent TDs' determination not to be rushed into a deal too soon.

The document's release to the media last night might play a part in us not getting a Taoiseach and Government this week, given the range and depth of topics which Independents and Fine Gael have to batter through.

If Fianna Fáil got three weeks to agree six pages - the Independents cannot be expected to deliver in three days, notwithstanding their preparatory talks over the past weeks with Fine Gael.

For the rest, this document is notable for its succinct words and also characterised by broad-brush phrases which carry the potential to be all things to all people.

Try this wonderful piece of ambiguity in the section about water charges: "We affirm that those who have paid their water bills to date will be treated no less favourably that those who have not." Will those who paid get refunds? Will those who have not paid be obliged to stump up the arrears?

We will have to continue looking elsewhere for answers to those questions.

There are few content details over and above the outline reported in this newspaper over the weekend. We now know that water charges will cease to exist within six weeks and that - when you add up the ideal timeframe for establishing a commission, getting its report, and putting it into an Oireachtas committee - the question of water charges could be back in political play inside a year.

Otherwise, the full document confirms that Fianna Fáil have grounds to argue that they got more overall in relation to various policy issues. But the brevity of references to each topic head will not reassure those lobbying for improvements on childcare, health and housing, among other issues, that big action is imminent.

Given the housing crisis which we face, the section on housing appears rather insubstantial. It pledges to provide more social housing, remove barriers to building private housing, and provide more affordable housing.

It pledges to retain mortgage interest relief and increase rent supplements by up to 15pc in some areas. There are general pledges to help ease mortgage distress, help elderly people live independently, and protect people from "vulture funds." But again we must look elsewhere for the "how" in all of these most laudable aims.

Key people in both parties have argued that you cannot expect more detail in such a document. And if you can overlook the poor outcome on the issue of water charges, all emphasis must be put on the section which we are told will allow a minority Fine Gael-led government function.

That, after all, is what the bulk of the people want. In that regard the arrangements appear reasonable and workable. But everything will depend on the intent with which this work is approached.

But despite it all, there were several swipes taken at Fine Gael at last night's Fianna Fáil meeting.

Fianna Fail negotiator Barry Cowen described Fine Gael as "right wing" - which he said was illustrated by several ministers during the talks. So let us not get too carried away. These big beasts do not love one another all of a sudden.    

Irish Independent

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