Monday 20 January 2020

Forget 'positive and engaging talks' - TDs just need to pick least worst option

Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

Forty days since the nation voted, the 158 TDs will return for the third time to Leinster House this afternoon to go through the motions again.

In many ways the real talking - discussions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil based on real Dáil numbers - will only begin after this afternoon's vote for Taoiseach. Estimates on how long it could take to make a deal vary from a fortnight to a month.

There is no guarantee of a deal. We cannot rule out another election happening before summer is with us.

But the body language and general demeanour of all parties and groups today will give us some indicators on the future.

The last five weeks have been about talks between various Independents and Fine Gael. Less intensive discussions also involved Fianna Fáil and the Independents.

Separately, the 15 TDs from across all parties, groups and Independents have come up with their first proposals to alter the way Dáil business is ordered. These will be delivered to the Dáil today as the first of up to three detailed reports aimed at giving all TDs more autonomy in pursuing the work of parliament.

Among the changes proposed is a committee to take over timetabling of Dáil business.

It suggests Dáil time should be divided between Government and Opposition on a 60/40 basis.

That is important in a changed Dáil as it allows for more than one "technical group," enabling more Independents to combine as a matter of convenience. Speaking time will also be allocated on a proportional basis.

TDs will also be able to appeal to the Ceann Comhairle when they believe that they are being fobbed off with inadequate answers to fair questions to government ministers. The new Ceann Comhairle, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, set out a timetable for more reform plans with a final draft report expected within three weeks.

This work on Dáil reform has progressed at a pace which contrasts with efforts at government-making. A vastly reformed Dáil must be accompanied by attitude changes by all the TDs and the senior government officials who interact with them. But signals of agreement by all TDs are, of itself, encouraging.

Fine Gael has fulfilled its promise to pull together into one document the 15 separate discussion papers worked over in recent weeks with the 15 Independent TDs whose support they are seeking. The areas covered include housing and homelessness; creating a social economy; jobs and rural development; health and mental health; support for people with disabilities; education; crime; agriculture; climate change and political reforms.

The Independents are still hanging tough on all these issues. Most of them want to see an arrangement being worked out between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on how a minority government would work. Without that, any policy deals are just aspirational.

Clearly, water charges and Irish Water will be central to a deal on government. Fine Gael has invested too much in the controversial utility, and a majority of householders have stumped up for charges.

Fianna Fáil wants to scrap Irish Water and suspend charges. Deadlock between the two big parties on this issue has been compounded by a reasonable call from rural Independents for comparable support for rural dwellers who have always paid for their water.

It is a very tricky one with the potential to scupper any government compromise. But it carries a very real message to all TDs: It is time to forget about "positive and meaningful talks" and consider "least worst options" here.

If that assessment appears unduly negative, let us contemplate another general election sooner rather than later.

Irish Independent

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