The dynamic between the parties in the coalition talks gives an insight into what to watch for next
The elephant in the room entered via social media. The negotiating teams from the three parties were set for a long round of talks three Saturdays ago. On the heavy agenda for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party were up to 10 policy papers to plough through, on areas ranging from transport and mental health to retrofitting and the Just Transition Fund for the midlands.
In the evening session, mobile phone messages began to ping saying Catherine Martin was contesting the Greens leadership against Eamon Ryan. The Greens deputy leader, Martin, was sitting there in the room as those across the table wondered whether there was any point to the negotiations at all.
"There were a lot of pressure points that day. In the middle of a 12-hour session, we all saw it on social media saying she was going for it and just thought: 'Jesus, what the f*** is going on?' Nobody said anything. Typically Irish. She sat there serenely," a negotiator laughs about it now.
The incident added to the enigma of Catherine Martin, who will take her seat at Cabinet this evening. The talks delivered a programme for government, which the three parties' memberships have approved.
The negotiations also gave a taste of what's to come as the parties have to work together. The sides got to know each other better.
The Greens did make an impression though. Neasa Hourigan was incredibly assured and confident as she fought for policies. Brian Leddin from Limerick was authoritative on climate policy, as were Ossian Smyth and Pippa Hackett. Marc Ó Cathasaigh from Waterford was an unexpected star, quietly chairing meetings with competence and authority.
"Marc, every time he took over the chairing role in any of the meetings, was very impressive, moving it along: 'Let's park that and let's come back to it.' He had a sense of when you needed to push things and when that was counterproductive. He was professional and friendly in it," a Fine Gael minister said,
The other two sides reckoned Roderic O'Gorman was where the power lay in the Greens. "Catherine didn't know how far she could go and how much she could compromise. Roderic was the one who was steering the Greens through the talks. When he spoke, it was the party deciding," a negotiator said.
When Eamon Ryan did participate in the talks, his experience came across and he was viewed as their most impressive figure with an authority that no one else had. Looking ahead to the new government, his deputy leader has a lot to do to convince others she is in control, particularly if she becomes party leader.
"The jury is out on Catherine Martin. She didn't contribute a lot. She always let the groups speak. She made very occasional interventions. She didn't necessarily stand out. She didn't really challenge. She might have done her talking at their own meetings.
"She was very clear she had to keep her group updated. She probably increased the buy-in. She was uneasy. People were wary about her during the talks. You didn't know exactly what agenda was at play. There was a recognition she had to endorse the deal," a senior negotiator said.
Martin wasn't the only deputy leader who didn't make a positive mark.
His own party colleagues complain about Tánaiste Simon Coveney's ability to drone on and patronise.
"Coveney is a pain in the hole. I'd hate to be dealing with him all the time. He's tone-deaf and to the manor born, 'I'll tell you little people' type. He's a nice fellah but completely verbose. He never spends a minute saying something when he can spend five," a Fine Gael figure says.
The worst example came with the Occupied Territories Bill, which would ban the import of Israeli goods from Palestine. The Greens and Fianna Fáil both wanted it in.
"It got kind of heated and went up to leaders. Coveney just shut down the discussion immediately and we got 20 minutes of preaching on world peace. He wouldn't even discuss it apart from his soliloquy," a Fianna Fáil TD says.
Ultimately, Fianna Fáil and the Greens relented as the strong legal advice from the Attorney General said the ban was illegal. Although there were differing views, as it was coming from the AG, it would be a bad start for the new government to overrule its own legal advice.
While Fianna Fáil and Green negotiators acknowledge that Coveney is professional and capable, they also say he didn't gel with his counterparts on the opposite sides, so there's work to do there on a bad working relationship.
By contrast, Paschal Donohoe has a positive vibe with Michael McGrath, Dara Calleary and Barry Cowen after working on the past four budgets under the Confidence and Supply arrangement.
As McGrath goes into the Public Expenditure Minister role, that is viewed as an important plank going forward. During the negotiations, McGrath was continually trying to move the talks on and get sign-off on policy areas.
"He's a cute Cork accountant. He's not a fellah with big vision. He's got his own kind of range: insurance, mortgage rates, all that. He's workmanlike. He's sensible," a member of the negotiating team said.
Part of the problem at the start was Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil didn't know if the Greens would come into the negotiations process. The influx of new Green TDs meant it was hard to get a handle on the mood within the party. The original exploratory talks between the parties had not gone well. "Tensions were high on all sides and there wasn't certainty on whether trust would build up. We were all miles apart," one TD said.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil drew up a Framework Document, which then prompted 17 questions from the Greens. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin themselves handled the response, which committed to the Greens' red line issues. But there was uncertainty about the response.
"The period of huge uncertainty was when there was a debate on the internal machinations. None of us knew. If there is a debate in Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil or the Labour Party, you'd know from a cup of coffee. It wasn't available to us in the early part," a TD said.
The concession on the reduction of carbon emissions was the key red-line issue, but the Greens wanted precise detail.
"Climate change: that was iconic for them. They were surprised at the willingness to go there. This is just anticipating what's coming down the track. It is genuine. It will definitely be the latter part of the decade. You need a huge amount of political commitment to turn society on its head. It had to be there and it had to be followed through. They were looking for any inch of a lack of seriousness," a member of the negotiating team said.
Indeed, giving the Greens what they wanted didn't necessarily assuage their concerns.
"Fianna Fáil were like nodding dogs and Fine Gael were fighting on detail. The Greens were interpreting that as Fianna Fáil telling them what they wanted to hear to con them into going into government," a Fine Gael TD said.
Richard Bruton's entry into the negotiations is viewed as another turning point. He was bumped from the backroom Fine Gael policy reference group up to the frontline when talks were sticking on emissions. He continued to contribute across a host of areas and played a role of honest broker with the Greens.
"Bruton shone through as the most capable of them and would have impressed us more than before. He was trying to find solutions. The level of experience shone through," a TD said admiringly.
Across the opposing parties, the talks also reaffirmed a lot of stereotypes about each other. Fine Gael being arrogant, Fianna Fáil not having enough depth and the Greens being sincere but slightly erratic. Fine Gael figures felt Fianna Fáil's efforts were half-assed, trundling along and not getting into the detail.
"The Fine Gael suspicion is Fianna Fáil is feckless and don't really care. That's still there after the talks," a negotiator said.
"At the start, Fine Gael were utterly shell-shocked. They didn't understand how housing and childcare were viewed as a failure. They changed course completely during the talks. They got their mojo back," a Fianna Fáil TD said.
Imagine a keen student of politics trying to grasp the Micheál Martin riddle. He lost three consecutive general elections, in 2011, 2016 and 2020.
The coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is an electoral landmark, a major departure from the previous pattern of the two parties alternating in power. But this step is potentially a pitstop on the way to a much more significant outcome: A government that does not involve either of them. Should that arise after the next election, it will mark the final end of Civil War politics.
"I have grown, evolved and changed in that time as well, but I am still motivated by the same ideals which drove me to enter politics in the first instance." Leo Varadkar, June 14, 2017, his maiden Dáil speech as Taoiseach.