Monday 19 March 2018

With coin tosses and a big dollop of drama, deal was finally put together

Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Tom Burke
Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Tom Burke
Mary Lou McDonald, Ruth Coppinger and Barry Cowen Photo: Tom Burke
Paschal Donohoe congratulates Frances Fitzgerald as Leo Varadkar looks on
Simon Coveney and daughter Beth outside Leinster House Photo: Arthur Carron
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Shane Ross gesticulated wildly and beseechingly at Michael Fitzmaurice. But Fitzmaurice remained stubbornly in his seat. No. Ross patted him on the shoulder in resignation and sprang up to cast his own vote. Fitzmaurice exhaled sharply, clearly under some stress as he wrestled with his conscience.

Simon Coveney tried the same tack with Noel Grealish, but to no avail. These Independents were not for turning. Or at least, not yet.

Even as they cast their votes in the chamber, the negotiations went right down to the wire.

Nobody knew what was happening - least of all on the Fine Gael benches.

Simon Harris was told on the way into the chamber that he would be delivering a speech. Noel Rock was told to keep his nomination short - and then informed at the last minute that he could go on at length. And he hadn't even a quotation from an American president to fall back on - having wisely opted to reference Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith instead.

The gapingly empty seats of the Independent Alliance were mocking them at the centre of the room.

What were they planning?

The tension was agonising. Ridiculous, almost.

And it was not confined to those down in the chamber.

Enda's wife, Fionnuala, daughter Aoibhinn (23) and sons Ferdia (21) and Naoise (19) sat rigidly in the gallery.

Their faces seemed to betray actual rage - and a very real terror of the possibility that Enda could yet be humiliated.

"It was cringe territory," said Labour's Alan Kelly later of the vote.

He had a point.

And yet there was a sense that having come so far, there was no way back for those who had given their word.

"If we had fallen today...and trust me at times it was close," trailed off Kevin 'Boxer' Moran afterwards, who has confirmed that he is to share a rotating junior ministry with Seán Canney.

"I thought the way things were looking today, it wasn't good," said Moran. And he was actually in the room where the talks were happening. What about the rest of them, who had to turn to social media in a bid to find out what was going on?

Apparently 70 days was not long enough to work out enough of a deal to make things run like clockwork.

Let's hope it's not a sign of things to come.

When an official Dáil brown envelope was laid before Enda by one of the ushers, everybody in the press gallery held their breath. Surely no good could come from a brown envelope.

Enda adjusted his tie before casually reaching for the envelope and tearing it open. He took from it a mobile phone. A few minutes later, a note was delivered to his desk. This missive caused him to knit his eyebrows and crumple the paper in his hand.

The speeches continued relentlessly but nobody listened to a word as they watched the door, still half expecting the Independent Alliance to make a vaudeville entrance down the steps.

Gerry Adams noted the absence of the "Endapendents".

Joan Burton gave an embittered speech as she hit out at everybody - but her face wore a look of such hurt that her barbs failed to wound. It was "a tawdry deal", she declared.

And yet she could not find it in her heart to criticise Enda, an "honourable man" who "worked hard".

In the gallery, Aoibhinn Kenny nodded her agreement.

Brendan Howlin grimly observed that there were "worse things than a General Election". But he, too, could find no fault with Enda.

And then suddenly, Shane Ross, 'Boxer' Moran and Finian McGrath slipped into the chamber and even the faces of the Opposition cleared in relief. Fionnuala Kenny relaxed and smiled.

Joan had a brief word with Shane Ross and then turned, giving Enda the thumbs up.

Finally - exhaustingly - the deal had been done and the vote could get under way for real. It was a narrow victory for the new minority government - 59 votes to 49 against.

Predictably enough, Michael Fitzmaurice took to the airwaves on Shannonside Radio to explain himself to his constituents before he chose to abstain. But he'll be brought over, 'Boxer' Moran claimed afterwards, after a review on the bogs issue. "It's not too late," he added.

Afterwards, Katherine Zappone made the physical shift over to the government benches.

As Enda prepared to make his departure for the Arás, a carnival atmosphere suddenly erupted - a triumphant crowd having suddenly materialised in the grounds of Leinster House. They were mostly Fine Gael staff and the Mayo contingent.

Fianna Fáil deputies sighed and shrugged amid the whoops and cheers. Now comes the hard part. But there was Christmas dinner on the menu down in the Dáil canteen, so things weren't all bad.

And then the rumour mill went into overdrive. "Shane Ross for Health," a blackboard outside a local coffee shop suggested darkly.

But there was no need for rumours where the new Minister Ross was concerned. Leaking like a sieve, first he informed everyone that he had missed two calls from Enda. And then that he had been given the Transport Ministry.

Such openness and transparency from the outset hadn't gone down too well with Fine Gael, apparently. But it was strangely cheering for the rest of us.

John Halligan, tipped for a junior ministry, declared that he had tickets to see ELO and was going to be there by hook or by crook. With a deal done, life can finally go on.

'Boxer' confirmed his own junior ministry to be shared with Sean Canney.

"We did something you'd never see in Leinster House," he said, revealing that they went into a room, "man-to-man" and tossed a coin.

"We flipped and Sean came up and I said, 'Seán, you take it for the first year and I'll take it for the second'," he said. He admitted it was "beyond his wildest dreams" to go from pumping water from the flooded banks of the Shannon in January to being a junior minister come May.

Out on the plinth, Finian McGrath sat in the sun and groaned as someone told him he had been caught on camera in the chamber, playing air guitar.

He swore that he knew nothing - that it would probably be Tuesday before anything would happen.

Half an hour later, he was striding self-consciously into the chamber as part of the new Cabinet.

Later, the new Minister Ross - after 35 years in Opposition - delivered his first impassioned speech as part of the Government. "I don't know what my powers are. I don't know what I can do in Government," he admitted - but he would welcome all contributions from the Opposition.

Fianna Fáil looked as if they were already having regrets.

Irish Independent

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