Sunday 18 February 2018

Lise Hand: Parties get speed date with Olli and fall for his many Finnish charms

Lise Hand

Lise Hand

Could this be a grim portent of things to come? A frozen, sodden huddle of Irish journalists were camped outside the European Commission building on Dawson Street yesterday morning, locked out and left to fend for themselves in the bitter elements while inside in the warmth, the Brussels Bogeyman Olli Rehn was conducting speed-dates with all and sundry.

The Fine Gael economic team were just leaving as the Labour Party lads were arriving for their powwow with the EU's Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner, and envious reporters pressed their icy noses to the window as Michael Noonan, Joan Burton and Brendan Howlin shared a nice cross-party cup of tea and a cosy chat.

But what was that behind them? The trio were too busy having a natter to notice the huge artwork on the wall behind them which featured Marlon Brando as Don Corleone sporting a large pair of pretty fairy wings. By Dublin artist ADW, it was -- unsurprisingly -- titled 'The Fairy Godfather'.

"Olli's made them an offer they can't refuse," suggested one observer.

"Perhaps Caoimhghin O Caolain's going to find a horse's head in his bed," reckoned another, referring to Sinn Fein's continuing refusal to play ball with the Government's projected four-year budget plan.

Well, it was clear from the commissioner's breakneck schedule that Olli was in town to ensure that the Irish economy doesn't end up in a concrete overcoat and sleeping with the fishes.

By 7.45am yesterday, the Flying Finn had zipped across the street from the Merrion Hotel for a power breakfast with the Taoiseach in Government Buildings. This lasted for 45 minutes, and then he found a 15-minute window in his diary to have a quick chat with the Greens -- and no doubt to commiserate with John Gormley for his brave-but-doomed attempt to broker consensus between the Government, Fine Gael and Labour.

And then it was over to Dawson Street to host back-to back sit-downs with the opposition parties, with the business and employers' association IBEC, before wrapping up with the chaps from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

At his press conference hours after his arrival in Dublin on Monday evening, Olli had been at pains to stress how important it was to the future of the economy that the squabbling between the political parties didn't Rehn on everyone's parade.

But was the commissioner prepared to play hardball with the warring parties? It seemed not; Olli admirably restrained himself from pointing out that this was indeed another fine mess we've got ourselves into.

Instead, he got the ear bent off him for over three hours. He sat and listened while he was told that the 2014 deadline to reduce the deficit to 3pc is too short (Sinn Fein); he was told the four-year plan was acceptable but it was wrong to pile a mind-boggling €6bn on to the next Budget (Labour), and he was told that the 2014 deadline was OK, the four-year plan might be OK, but that an immediate general election would be better (Fine Gael).

Poor Olli's head must've been spinning. But nobody stormed out in a huff.

"He's a very affable man," said Fine Gael's Michael Noonan, who described the presence of Olli in Ireland as "important, because he's the commissioner who's in charge of these matters in Europe, and it's very important that whatever government is in power has the support of the EU commission and the European Central Bank".

Even the formidable Joan Burton was impressed when she emerged from the Labour-Olli summit after a lengthy meeting.

"He was very businesslike, very friendly, very forthright . . . he was very Finnish," she beamed.

And when the Three Wise Beards -- ICTU general secretary David Begg, SIPTU president Jack O'Connor and ICTU's economic adviser Paul Sweeney -- left the building, David declared that the meeting "wasn't antagonistic" and that the commissioner had admitted that putting a definite figure on the deficit wasn't an exact science. "He displayed a considerably less arrogance than many other people who advance that as the only solution," said David.

Goodness, it seemed that if the political parties and social partners weren't exactly singing in the Rehn, then at least there had been no crockery thrown.

And finally, Olli ended his lightning tour with a speech and a Q&A session at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) on North Great George's Street.

A protest outside the institute had been scheduled, but perhaps the crowd were all outside the IFA, the IDA or the IMI, for only 17 souls with placards braved the foul weather.

Inside, the place was mobbed with the likes of Garret FitzGerald, the Attorney-General Paul Gallagher, former NTMA chief Michael Somers and Michael Noonan and Joan Burton back for second helpings of their hero. Olli again had nuggets of praise.

"You are a smart and stubborn people," he told his audience, before consoling everyone that "the darkest hour is just before dawn".

The Brussels Bogeyman played nice this time. But the sugar-coated message was still very, very clear -- get your house in order, or the demolition men will be the next emissaries from the EU.

It's not personal, Olli will assure us. It's strictly business.

Irish Independent

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