Friday 17 January 2020

Tasty eclairs all round as Enda's love bombs fall

IN DEMAND: Independent Alliance deputies Sean Canney, Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice, Finian McGrath and Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
IN DEMAND: Independent Alliance deputies Sean Canney, Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice, Finian McGrath and Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke

Shane Ross

Over the last two weeks, I have been buried in a bubble of love. Suddenly, all my political foes have become uncannily cuddly. Those who have been happy to hurl insults across the Dail floor have been welcoming me into Government Buildings. The past is forgiven and forgotten. We are now, supposedly, all in this big mess together. The narrative in the Department of the Taoiseach is being hammered home: it is our joint "responsibility" to bury the hatchet and form a government. Anyone who does not subscribe to this doctrine is betraying the people.

The mating game began soon after the General Election. Unfortunately, the choice of partners was limited. Many TDs did not want to become "contaminated" by the process. They feared being sucked into it. They could never vote for either Enda Kenny or Micheal Martin for Taoiseach, so why turn up at Government Buildings to take part in what they regarded as a farce?

I am part of what Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and others have recently branded a "charade".

The absence of Adams's party, the Social Democrats, the Anti-Austerity crowd, the Greens, the Labour Party and various Independents has not reduced the negotiations to nought, but has certainly limited the combinations for government.

Yet the absentees have done the participants a favour. We are permanently reminded by them of the intoxicating temptations of power, the moment you enter Government Buildings. The atmosphere is dangerously seductive.

We are negotiating in comfort and in privileged surroundings. The path from Leinster House to Government Buildings is almost seamless, through a tunnel open to ministers, TDs, senators and top civil servants. Every day, we have been treated to a lunch of fresh sandwiches or even a hot dish. One day, we even sampled eclairs and other pastries. Break-out rooms have been made available to every group in the talks.

Coffee, tea and biscuits flow throughout the day. All the luxurious rooms have high ceilings, the walls are covered by wooden panels and the carpets are inches deep.

Lunch gives us an opportunity to rub shoulders with normally unapproachable and distant ministers. Today, nothing is too much trouble for them.

They all seem to have been to charm school in recent weeks. I became particularly worried about myself last Wednesday when I began to warm to Richard Bruton, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald. I positively liked the company of junior minister, Simon Harris. Enda Kenny was warm in his conversations and generous in his hospitality. All that was lacking was vodka or caviar.

A "them and us" atmosphere was being created by continuous back-patting, heaped on us by our hosts for taking part in the "process". We were constantly being complimented on our political courage and the "risks" we were taking "in the national interest".

We were in danger of becoming political insiders. Never in the history of the State have the bellies of Independent TDs been so well filled nor tickled more vigorously.

Momentarily, we enjoyed the attention, the flattery and the comaraderie. The unwritten script was obvious: you could be permanent occupants of this modest palace within weeks. By implication, those outside the process (and the comfort of Government Buildings) lacked our patriotism, our self-sacrifice and were not interested in government formation.

The detractors are partly wrong. Dialogue is essential, however distasteful or even hopeless, but if everyone behaved the same way as Adams and his crew, no government could possibly be formed.

But the detractors are right when they warn that those participating are in danger of being politically neutered by the experience. Some could even be captured, overcome by Stockholm Syndrome.

Some, but not all. Not Michael Healy-Rae, who was incensed last week when the Cabinet kept us waiting for 45 minutes. The Kerry TD announced that he was leaving the talks following the snub, demanding: "Who do they think they are?"

Minister of State Simon Harris promptly headed for the cabinet room to summon the big wigs to heed Healy-Rae's call. The ministers hurriedly arrived into the talks within minutes, apologising, as ministers never normally do.

For a few short weeks, the tables have turned. Ministers are at the beck and call of ordinary TDs.

Politicians who would happily have plunged a bayonet in our backs three months ago are asking us politely if we take sugar with our tea. Three months ago, many of us would have demanded a taster before drinking it.

Down at the competing talks back in Leinster House, Fianna Fail hosts a far more Spartan event. The atmosphere is less formal and lacking in its rival's creature comforts. The trappings of opposition are hardly as enticing. There is no tea, no biscuits, no coffee. The room is pokey, too small for the large table. During the proceedings there is no flowery flattery. It is all business.

While the Fine Gael bash is full of rapporteurs, party officials and advisers on tap, only two members of staff sit alongside Micheal Martin and TDs Barry Cowen, Jim O'Callaghan, Michael McGrath and Charlie McConalogue. There is less of an aura of power around the table as only Martin has ever been a minister.

The party leader dominates the entire proceedings with his command of nearly all topics, probably due to his vast experience in various cabinet posts. At the Fine Gael-hosted events, the Taoiseach makes strategic interventions but leaves most of the spade work to Simon Coveney, the man driving the process. While Martin chairs the Fianna Fail gig, Fine Gael has employed outside consultant Lucy McCaffrey as an independent in the hot seat.

Despite the theatrical behaviour of Enda and Micheal last week, the work of the talks is carrying on in the background. Both political parties have produced papers on issues that make some welcome concessions to the radical-change agenda.

Whether that is due to conviction or political necessity is not immediately obvious. Yet progress is limited. The warring parties will have to travel far further down the reform road. Promises are one thing, implementation is another. The sight of shell-shocked, old-style politicians championing 'new' politics is hardly credible.

The real obstacle to the reform agenda is the political mindset. At the beginning of the talks in Government Buildings progress was painfully slow. Reform proposals prompted a united chorus of government and civil service resistance. Token concessions were offered.

In one case, when I was advocating a radical change in the law, the opposition across the table was so instinctively and unanimously dismissive that I questioned my own judgment. I was almost captured by the consensus.

The moment I escaped from the bubble that evening, I realised that I had been in danger of being blindsided into submission.

A few days later, the establishment made further concessions. Then the full-blooded seduction began in earnest.

The love-bombing was suffocating. Fine Gael fragrance has an unfamiliar scent. But the constant courting did not extend to the Dail chamber.

While ministers bit their tongues and paid public tribute to the Independents in the search for support last Wednesday, not all their backbenchers were on message. When Danny Healy-Rae was in flow during the debate on electing a Taoiseach, deep in injury time, the Ceann Comhairle interrupted him to say that he was now eating into Deputy Ross's speaking time. A voice from the Fine Gael benches - quick as lightning - heckled loudly: "Keep going."

Old habits, like old politics, die hard.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss