Thursday 22 August 2019

Cowen tried to steal Christmas only for Fine Gael to celebrate an early present

Fianna Fáil’s housing spokesman Barry Cowen. Photo: Tom Burke
Fianna Fáil’s housing spokesman Barry Cowen. Photo: Tom Burke
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The Dáil bar was heaving on Wednesday evening as politicians and staffers of all colours warmed up for their Christmas parties.

A short walk in opposite directions from Leinster House, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both had festive drinks.

Micheál Martin's old-school troops headed for pints in Doheny & Nesbitt.

Fine Gael were clinking their wine glasses in the more upmarket 37 Dawson Street.

But there were two notably absentees. Barry Cowen was marching back and forth across the so-called 'bridge of sighs' that links the Dáil with Government Buildings to Housing Minister Simon Coveney's office.

They were effectively auditioning for the role of the 'Grinch who stole Christmas'.

Earlier both men had met with their respective parliamentary parties to discuss the rental strategy.

Fianna Fáil had already publicly stated that annual price rises of 4pc in 'Rent Pressure Zones' (RPZs) wouldn't fly.

Its TDs and senators were divided on how far to push the issue but ultimately believed that with enough huff and puff Mr Cowen would blow the Housing Minister down.

More important though was the demand that commuter belt towns and the cities of Galway, Limerick and Waterford be included in the plan for RPZs.

Mr Cowen was given a tentative mandate to play hardball.

Things were very different at the Fine Gael meeting where backbenchers were "pumped up".

Knowing his comments would be leaked to the media, Taoiseach Enda Kenny warned that unless Mr Cowen backed down the Government would pull the plan for rent caps altogether.

At the time a Fianna Fáil source expressed "serious concern that internal Fine Gael politics will take over".

Buoyed by "unanimous" backing from the party, Mr Coveney welcomed Mr Cowen to his office with open arms. Their conversations were "collegial" but not very productive.

The minister offered "assurances" that he hadn't forgotten areas outside of Dublin and Cork but little else. He insisted January/February was the best he could do in terms of designating more RPZs.

Fianna Fáil argued: "That's mental, you might as well put up a big billboard to landlords saying 'put rents up'."

Mr Coveney promised that Finance Minister Michael Noonan would investigate tax incentives in time for next October's budget but under no circumstances would he budge on the 4pc rent cap.

Eventually Fianna Fáil capitulated on the rent cap issue but made a non-negotiable demand on RPZs.

In a major political gamble, the minister stood his ground and at 11.20pm Mr Cowen left Government Buildings for the final time. There were "irreconcilable differences".

When Mr Coveney spoke to the Irish Independent an hour later he described himself as "frustrated". His tone suggested he was being diplomatic.

"I'm not going to agree to make a farce of the process," he said, adding: "They are messing with people's lives."

Roll forward to yesterday morning and sore party heads worsened when they arrived back at Leinster House - to discover that the Christmas holidays were under threat.

By then Mr Cowen had been hung up on by RTÉ's 'Morning Ireland' after trying to do an interview over a terrible phone line, leaving Mr Coveney with a free run on the radio.

At 9am a tired but slightly calmer minister sent a text message inviting Mr Cowen back for more talks.

There followed chaos in the Dáil at 10am when it was confirmed that the Taoiseach had followed through on his threat and pulled the legislation from the agenda.

"New politics, my arse," shouted Gerry Adams across the chamber, as everything was postponed.

On the fringes, Mr Coveney was spotted deep in conversation with Micheál Martin. The pair would speak by phone "a couple of times" as the day progressed.

And eventually the mood began to lighten as Fine Gael TD Jim Daly asked Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald to reassure the children of the nation that Fianna Fáil wouldn't be looking to water down Santa Claus's flight permit ahead of December 25.

"No objections have been put in by anybody," she said.

And a few hours later Mr Coveney gave Fine Gael the best present of all: A big win over Fianna Fáil to end out the political year.

However, only time will tell whether he has delivered a Christmas miracle for more than 700,000 renters.

Irish Independent

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