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Shane Ross: Change? Don't count on it

THE scene: a private room in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, Sunday, February 27. Present are Enda Kenny leader of Fine Gael and Eamon Gilmore leader of Labour Party.

Eamon: Congratulations Enda, great result. Let's talk.

Enda: Okay, but all the figures are not yet in.

Eamon: No problem, we need a provisional programme for government. As I said to you on last week's televised leaders debate, we should sit down and work a few things out.

Enda: That was a great show. We fairly screwed poor Micheal. You were brilliant at the odd ambush after I had softened him up. He expected us to be fighting like cats and dogs, but we turned our fire on him.

Eamon: We need a strong government. Let us settle our differences today and proceed to draw up the programme.

Enda: What differences? Our skirmishes were a phony war. We know that, and so did the public. I have already drawn up the joint statement to follow our frenzied negotiations. Shall I read it to you?

Eamon: Go ahead.

Enda: "Following our meeting with officials from the Department of Finance, the Exchequer's books have emerged as far worse than we had been informed.

"The outgoing government has left the nation's finances in a state of unprecedented peril.

"As a consequence, we have concluded that our electoral manifestos must be suspended for a period of 18 months."

Eamon: Bravo, bin them!

Enda: No problem. Ours was a work of fantasy. Yours was nonsense.

You played to the public service, we pandered to the private sector. Now we can unite in dumping on them both -- temporarily, of course.

Eamon: Okay, but what are we going to do about the EU/IMF deal?

Enda: Nothing. We were only shadow boxing. You and I know that Jean-Claude Trichet will have a canary if he even hears the word "default". You called it "restructuring" during the campaign, we called it "pain-sharing".

We will probably have to do a bit of grandstanding in Brussels. We can send our new pal Pat Cox out there to eyeball our new masters -- but we both know that nothing much will be changed unless we have the bottle to go for broke.

They will allow us a lower interest rate and a few token changes but the net result will be the same.

Eamon: Some of those awkward independents and David McWilliams are looking for a referendum on the deal? What do you think?

Enda: Are you barmy? Offer the people the choice? They have given their verdict. We are in charge and they must not be asked for their opinions on anything for another five years.

Eamon: I thought we were talking about abolishing the Seanad? Surely that would need a referendum?

Enda: Put it on the long finger. Anyway that referendum result is a foregone conclusion.

Eamon: Any chance we can soft-pedal on Seanad reform? I have a few really excellent candidates for Taoiseach's Seanad nominations. Coincidentally, they're all members of the Labour Party -- but they are really committed guys.

Enda: I sympathise. Several of our troops have fought the good fight and lost. They deserve recognition. Perhaps we could establish a commission to consider the Seanad project?

Eamon: Yippee! Our People's Convention.

Enda: You must be joking! We need a quango with our in- house chosen constitutional experts sitting on it -- not a rabble.

Eamon: Are we not both against quangos?

Enda: No, only against the Fianna Fail quangos. We will abolish 145 but that leaves several hundred.

Eamon: We must retain the power to nominate "suitable" people . For God's sake Enda, we cannot allow unreliable types to sit as directors of Labour's pet project, our proposed new Strategic Investment Bank.

Enda: Pie in the sky. How are you going to pay for it?

Eamon: From the National Pension Reserve Fund of course -- or is it empty? The Strategic Investment Bank is a vital part of our "jobs strategy".

Enda: Put it on hold, like everything else. All those assorted jobs proposals were for the campaign. We're now in the real world.

In return we will suspend our promise to remove 30,000 jobs from the public service. That was merely a sop to the market-led lobby.

Eamon: Fair enough. But how are we going to bridge the budget deficit? We all ducked and dived about this in recent weeks. Labour wants more taxes, income taxes, capital taxes -- and I have a really novel idea. How about a property tax?

Enda: It hardly surfaced during the campaign. Good thinking. Nobody spotted this sitting duck perched on the horizon.

We in Fine Gael waffled about cutting waste -- but that is fairyland without the political will. A property tax is a runner.

Eamon: We seem to have agreed everything then. Policy has taken 10 minutes. All that is left is the disbursement of Cabinet posts.

So. . . we thought we would make a magnanimous gesture and offer you the Department of Finance. Ruairi would love it, he never received due credit for his spell in Finance in the Nineties; Joan feels she's earned it; and Pat Rabbitte would be brilliant. . . but you won the most seats, so let us concede it to you.

Enda (gulps): Well, Michael Noonan would be a fine Minister for Foreign Affairs. Richard is still in the doghouse after trying to assassinate me last year, so you can have it.


Eamon: We in Labour decided to offer you the big spending Department of Health as well. Nobody better than Dr James to clean up Mary's mess.

Enda (chokes): Actually. . . we thought that maybe you would like to put one of your younger Turks, like Sean Sherlock, into Health?

Eamon: We had better set up negotiating teams to solve any outstanding problems. I will ask Pat and Ruairi to represent us.

Enda: It shouldn't take long. All that remains is the division of the spoils. I will ask big Phil Hogan and Frank Flannery to bat for Fine Gael.

Eamon: Just for the optics, should we not do a bit of gender balancing on the teams? Maybe I will nominate Joan, and you could maybe include Lucinda?

Enda: The lads would run kicking and screaming from the room. Lucinda is a loose cannon and Joan would cause mayhem with all that finger wagging.

Look, we have till March 9, when the new Dail sits, to dish up the goodies. If we cannot agree on the carve up in 10 days after having agreed policy in 10 minutes, I can always look elsewhere.

Eamon: No need to do that. Of course there will have to be a few headline changes, token gestures to political reforms -- but nothing will change.

We will include pages and pages of window dressing to disguise the lack of any radical departures in the agreed programme.

Enda: Window dressing? Our combined teams could do it in their sleep.

Ten days later, on March 8, after endless wrangling about the Cabinet positions, the new Programme for Government is agreed. . .

Sunday Indo Business