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Monday 19 February 2018

Ultimately, split came down to wine versus pints

Jim O'Callaghan, Michael McGrath, Charlie McConalogue, Barry Cowen and Charlie McConalogue leaving Trinity College after talks Photo:
Jim O'Callaghan, Michael McGrath, Charlie McConalogue, Barry Cowen and Charlie McConalogue leaving Trinity College after talks Photo:
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Leo Varadkar wanted to go for wine at the Marker, Barry Cowen wanted to go for pints with the people.

It has taken nearly 70 days for somebody to properly explain the real difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil but in layman's terms, Mr Cowen called it at a private meeting of TDs.

Their Civil War bitterness has faded and their policy platforms have huge similarities - but they are very dissimilar people.

As the deal that will allow Enda Kenny to maintain his position of Taoiseach was revealed in the past 24 hours, the Irish Independent has learned what really went on in the 'Trinity Talks'.

It's well known that there was brinkmanship over water but behind the scenes they also clashed on agriculture, education and housing.

Fianna Fáil purposely selected a negotiating team that spanned the regions: Mr Cowen (the Midlands), Charlie McConalogue (the North West), Michael McGrath (the South) and Jim O'Callaghan (Dublin).

On the other hand, Mr Kenny sent in three Dublin ministers and Simon Coveney from Cork. At times, acting Finance Minister Michael Noonan from Limerick city joined the discussions.

The make-up of the two sides reflected much of what happened in the election campaign. Fine Gael was accused of being 'too urbane' and having a 'D4 mentality'.

Mr Cowen seemed to confirm this when he told the parliamentary party meeting that Mr Varadkar wanted to take everybody for wine in a luxury hotel in the Docklands. He argued that Paschal Donohoe was too much of a goody-two-shoes who took civil servants at their word.

Mr Coveney, he suggested, didn't understand small rural farmers. And his opinion of Frances Fitzgerald wasn't much better.

The Offaly TD used hyperbole to argue that Fine Gael didn't understand ordinary people - people who drink pints in the local rather than Merlot in the Marker.

Fianna Fáil's negotiating team felt their rivals were interested in protecting family farms - "but only if they were over 200 acres".

Fine Gael resisted any hikes to the rent supplement on the grounds that a report by civil servants said it would distort the market further.

"They kept saying the report is against it. But they didn't seem to realise that there were people out on the streets. OK, it might not work. Come back to us in 12 months with evidence and we'll say fair enough but the current way isn't working either," said a Fianna Fáil source.

It was a "sense of entitlement" coming from Fine Gael that caused Fianna Fáil to seek a change of location for the talks.

"It was 'come on over to Government Buildings' as if they owned the place. It was like they felt entitled to be in government.

"That's why we moved," a source said.

The change of scenery gave Fianna Fáil new energy. During the debate around variable mortgage interest relief Mr McGrath wanted legislation but Mr Noonan insisted it wouldn't be feasible.

Ultimately, they compromised on a bullet point that read: "Take all necessary action to tackle high variable interest rates." It won't be long before Mr McGrath is on his feet in the Dáil insisting that means legislation.

When it came to taxation Mr McGrath is understood to have told Mr Noonan: "We are doing it our way on USC."

To the outside world though, both sides were determined to keep up a 'cordial' front - until Mr Varadkar eventually snapped on radio, saying the suspension of water charges was wrong.

Mr Varadkar's attack was not raised when they went back into talks last Friday. However, after Mr Cowen described the Health Minister as "that character" to the media outside, the pair did have a "brief chat" on the fringes.

In Offaly-speak 'that character' can have any number of meanings but they agreed to park it.

A source said Mr Varadkar wanted to show they weren't going to be rolled over.

"We didn't have to go out and pretend it was a great idea. It's the price Fianna Fáil extracted but it's stupid."

Fine Gael believed Micheál Martin was instructing his team to dangle the threat of a General Election at will.

This was like kryptonite to Enda Kenny. For him it was Taoiseach at all costs - including an embarrassing capitulation on water.

However, sources in both sides say when the deal was finally struck a wave of relief ran over all the negotiators.

"But by the time we wrapped up we even joked about negotiating a coalition next time," said one insider.

But Fine Gael is now adamant it must "take the battle" back to Fianna Fáil.

"They are going to be full throttle at us from the start but we can't operate in fear. That would be disaster in government," said one minister.

Irish Independent

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