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Forget talks about talks, just set a date and get on with it

The sports reporter on the radio was explaining how, after each of soccer coach Giovanni Trapattoni's press conferences, the journalists get together to decide what it was he said.

They spend considerable time going back over the broken English quotes and try to work out as accurately as possible what the Italian had said, or failing that, what it was he had meant to say.

It reminded me of the days when Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach and where political journalists would pool audio resources to try and first of all decipher, and then make sense of, what he had been saying.

His mangling of our language has become the stuff of legend and this verbal dyslexia was a "handicap" he frequently used to his advantage, given that what he said could frequently be interpreted either way.

Somewhat ironically, while his successor Brian Cowen has a far superior command of the English language, he manages to be a far poorer communicator, with a convoluted style of speaking and a downbeat tone which can leave the listener's mind wandering no matter how much they want to pay attention.

Still there are occasions, similar to Bertie, when it's pretty clear where he stands on an issue.

One of those occasions was his apparent distaste at the notion of calling in the opposition parties to try and reach consensus on our four-year budgetary plan.

As is too often the case with our Taoiseach, his attitude seemed puzzling, if not inexplicable. At a time when voters are in utter desolation, he appeared to be tribally and pettily rejecting an effort to knock heads together.

Even a casual observer, unfamiliar with Brian Cowen, would have come to the conclusion that he had no enthusiasm for the notion, hearing him speak of it on various occasions.

Regardless of his recent protests to the contrary, it was clear he was irked by the Green's initiative -- a smart move from the beleaguered party. It's the sort of thinking from the Greens we would have lauded before they entered Government and became popular political punchbags.

But by Thursday, Mr Cowen was coming over all hurt and telling us that people were "interpreting what I have to say in a certain way", and although he was unsure what measure of agreement could be reached between the Government and the two main opposition parties, "at no point was there any suggestion by me that this wouldn't take place".

So while we had Mr Cowen's 'Lanigan's Ball' approach to these talks, Fine Gael and Labour were understandably suspicious of his volte-face. They responded with lesser degrees of enthusiasm and with a strong feeling that they were, as Labour's Pat Rabbitte put it, now being subjected to a "come into my parlour-type ruse".

Who knows why the Taoiseach changed his mind, but the move ultimately does put the opposition somewhat on the back foot.

There is bound to be a round of "you show me yours before I show you mine" in terms of budgetary policies, and they fear that come Budget time the voters will associate them with the shock and awe cutbacks which will have to be implemented. They just want a general election. From a political perspective it's all perfectly understandable, and opposition politicians are right to have suspicions that they are being used.

But viewed from the punter's perspective the carry- on of the past week has just served to reinforce the notion that politicians are a breed apart and do not share the same immediate fears of Irish citizens concerning individual and national bankruptcy.

While the rest of us are talking about mortgages, liquidations, emigration and how many years all of this is going to last, the politicians appear to be "having talks about talks". Is it just me, or are there shades of the partnership talks here? Once they eventually get going, will we see the lights shining in Government Buildings late into the night?

Even the least cynical among us are already predicting that the whole thing will be a waste of time, and never ever was there more pertinence than now to the phrase "time is money". There is an increasing sense that we are slipping into some sort of unreality.

Am I mad to be panicking, you think, when the leaders of our country appear not to be -- well, at least not in a way that they are obviously exploring every avenue open to them to get us out of this godforsaken mess.

In the mix we have, the vast amount of billions we owe (still not sure exactly how much), a Taoiseach whose leadership is regularly being challenged, a Fine Gael leader whose abilities at least half of his party have doubts in, and a Labour leader who is beginning to make promises on tax and social welfare that even if you want them to be true, you know you're in cloud cuckoo land to think so.

We can take some consolation that the European Commission is obviously pulling strings in the background in relation to this four-year plan, and there is bound to be some influence being brought to bear by the International Monetary Fund.

From what we know, the first mention of these Government-opposition talks between Fianna Fail and the Greens was when Eamon Ryan mentioned it to Brian Lenihan coming out of a Cabinet meeting.

We're 11 days on from that, and as of now there isn't even a likely date for the first meeting to take place. This is a saga that is set to keep us interested. But not in a good way.

Irish Independent