Tuesday 20 March 2018

Independent stood firm as turf row threatened to derail Kenny

The issue of turf-cutting threatened to de-rail negotiations between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance
The issue of turf-cutting threatened to de-rail negotiations between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

From the 'Boxer' of Westmeath to the doctor of Clare, 15 Independent TDs and the two Green Party deputies took the bold decision to enter government formation talks almost 70 days ago. Unlike their colleagues from other political parties, such as Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats, this motley crew of politicians were prepared to take a risk.

They were willing to engage seriously with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - not only about forming a Government - but to address the huge issues affecting the lives of ordinary families.

But as the weeks dragged on, a number of TDs dropped out of the negotiations.

And so eight Independents joined forces with Fine Gael in a move that pushed Mr Kenny beyond the magic number of 58 and brought the torturous political impasse to an end.

But the dramatic story behind Mr Kenny's election will be told for decades to come. And the outcome of yesterday's vote could have been very different indeed if a row over bogs had rewritten the script and shattered Mr Kenny's dreams of making history. For over three days, Roscommon deputy Michael Fitzmaurice fought tirelessly on behalf of the country's turf-cutters.

The farmer demanded better terms, especially for those opting to transfer to bogs where the EU ban on turf cutting does not apply.

On Tuesday, the Independent Alliance were given a ray of hope from Fine Gael negotiator Michael Noonan that a deal could be done. But the sense of hope quickly turned to anger after Heather Humphreys, whose Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has responsibility for the country's bogs, was drafted in to discuss the issue.

Ms Humphreys illustrated the difficulties in meeting Mr Fitzmaurice's demands as she explained the country's obligations under EU law.

As Thursday arrived, it became clear that the mood in the talks was changing.

And, not the first time, tempers flared. Mr Fitzmaurice, who wears his heart on his sleeve, lost his cool. On one occasion, he resorted to colourful language during an exchange with Simon Coveney.

"You might have rode Labour when they were in Government, but you ain't going to be riding me," he said. But as Fine Gael figures tried to win Mr Fitzmaurice round on Friday morning, there were exasperated faces in other parts of the Independent Alliance camp.

John Halligan accused Fine Gael of trying to bounce him and his colleagues into the midday vote before they had resolved outstanding issues. Mr Halligan wanted the vote delayed in a move that caused consternation within the Fine Gael camp.

Just after 10am, the Waterford deputy insisted the group would vote as a unit and that members would row in behind Mr Fitzmaurice and his efforts to secure a deal on bogs. "It is all for one and one for all," he said.

Back in Government Buildings and the tensions within the Independent Alliance reached fever pitch.

Mr Kenny's Chief of Staff Mark Kennelly insisted the midday Dáil sitting would not be deferred under any circumstance.

And the nerves frayed even further after the Taoiseach turned up 20 minutes late for an 11am meeting with the group.

"We were hopping off the f***ing walls. Then Kenny just sauntered in and acted like there was nothing wrong," said one source close to the talks. At 11.35am - just 25 minutes before the Dáil was scheduled to sit - the issue of ministerial jobs was finally discussed. But as the two groups bartered over positions, one man maintained a stony silence. Michael Fitzmaurice knew he would not be voting for Mr Kenny as Taoiseach.

The Independent Alliance had suffered a split - over a year after its launch.

Mr Fitzmaurice told Fine Gael he would abstain in the vote for Taoiseach - and allow his five comrades to do a deal without him.

There's no doubt it is a decision he will agonise over for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, it shows that not everyone succumbs easily to the temptation of power.

Irish Independent

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