Straws in the stormy wind
Appropriately, the talks on the formation of a new government are taking place in the National Emergency Coordination Centre.
The setting on the second floor of Agriculture House on Kildare Street is familiar to people at home from the briefings during big storms.
Although there's no breakthrough yet, a few straws in the wind have blown about:
* a radical cap on the price of land sold for housing and new planning powers are pivotal to deliver homes;
* a referendum to water down property rights is on the table to sort the housing crisis;
* the 47-year-old Kenny Report on the price of building land is certainly back as compulsory reading;
* Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is looking beyond manifesto promises to show the lessons of the election have been learned;
* a senior civil servant warned of the economic realities and blockages to house building;
* a cull of the National Development Plan, Project Ireland 2040, will have to take place;
* the Attorney General has warned against the legality of emergency planning laws to speed up house building;
* the Green Party's emissions reductions targets are the biggest policy gap;
* Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's nondescript stance on the talks is causing annoyance among Fine Gael ministers;
* all sides feel the next government will need a full five years to make an impact.
Ag House is one of the most security-tight buildings around. It's accessible, by pass, from both Leinster House and Government Buildings, so it makes for a secure neutral venue for the talks.
The negotiations are unlikely to be over anytime soon.
Eamon Ryan was non-plussed when he said this week policy talks could take anything up to five weeks.
Inspired by the Green model employed by their European counterparts in places like Austria, Finland and Luxembourg, the process is very deliberative. Ryan brings all his TDs, senators, MEP Ciarán Cuffe and some councillors and researchers to meetings.
They all sit around the square table occupied by government departments during the storms and emergencies.
These plenary sessions have been likened to a mini Oireachtas committee. The teams also break up into smaller groups in separate rooms to discuss individual policies, with a rapporteur compiling a report on areas of agreement.
Officials from the National Economic and Social Council, which advises the Government on sustainable economic, social and environment development, and the Department of the Taoiseach are also assisting the talks.
To show good faith, Fianna Fáil's negotiation team turned up with 10 researchers too. The Greens have held long and tiring sessions with all the main parties - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin - as well as talking to Independents.
Stressing the importance of climate change to their agenda, the Greens are asking the other parties to explain how they intend to reduce emissions by 7pc per annum for the next decade. It's a big ask. The national target is currently about 2pc a year, so it's a huge stumbling block.
The Greens have also emphasised their opposition to big roads projects, like the Galway bypass and the Cork to Limerick motorway. A review of infrastructure projects will take place anyway once the new government takes up office, so some projects will fall. Farming policies have also obviously cropped up but without getting into great detail.
At this point, the Greens and Fianna Fáil appear to be making more headway, achieving broad agreement on health, Brexit, EU affairs and cost-of-living measures, albeit without discussing personal tax.
The Greens' focus on childcare, with provision by the State and providing parents with choice, and mental health has been warmly greeted by Fianna Fáil. Likewise, the Greens have been receptive to Fianna Fáil's strong focus on third-level education and emphasis on reducing waiting times for operations by using the National Treatment Purchase Fund to buy private care.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's meeting this week was more formulaic, going through policies. Fine Gael's team of six is headed by Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe.
"In the policy exchange, we agreed on a few things and disagreed on others. Both sides agreed there was a serious lesson sent to centre-ground parties in the election and the next government will have a big job to do," a party source said.
Fianna Fáil's team interpreted Fine Gael's foot-dragging as payback for tensions during the last administration. But there is frustration among senior ministers as the mandate from Leo Varadkar is less than clear. As a senior Fine Gael source noted: "They're doing their best but the obstacle is coming from Leo. No one knows what he's at."
The first sign of radical thinking on housing came when the author of the last official report on property rights suddenly started receiving a batch of queries from Fianna Fáil and the Greens.
Fianna Fáil Senator Denis O'Donovan chaired the Oireachtas committee on the Constitution's report on private property 16 years ago. The report was a refresh of the Kenny Report from 1973 on the price of building land.
Chaired by Mr Justice John Kenny, the 1973 report recommended a cap on the price of building land. It said land should be compulsorily acquired by local authorities at no more than 25pc more than its agricultural value.
The report said the rise in the value of building land is attributable to infrastructural works, like roads and drainage, carried out by local authorities. So Kenny said the local community had a legitimate claim to all profit arising from building on the land, which he referred to as "betterment".
The 25pc top-up compensation was viewed as "a reasonable compromise between the rights of the community and those of the landowners". The report said it would stymie the disproportionate price rise in building land and therefore end speculative land hoarding.
The theory put forward by property developers and other vested interests was that it would need a referendum to introduce such measures. Putting controls on the price of land was seen as an infringement on private property rights, which are significantly protected under the Constitution, most notably Article 43.1.2.
The report has been parked for five decades as a result, although its aspirations have often been admired.
O'Donovan's committee said implementing the Kenny Report wouldn't need a referendum and could be done through legislation.
"The committee is of the view that it is very likely that the major elements of the Kenny recommendations - that land required for development by local authorities should be compulsorily acquired for development by local authorities at existing values plus 25pc - would not be found to be unconstitutional."
O'Donovan points out now that the committee's legal adviser was none other than constitutional law expert Gerard Hogan, who went on to the High Court and is now an advocate general of the European Court of Justice.
"Our conclusions were unanimous but the report was produced in the madness of the property boom so there was no interest in taking it on.
"A referendum could be divisive because people would say you were interfering with property rights. The Greens and Fianna Fáil and even Fine Gael are now saying 'what was wrong with Kenny'," he says.
History is repeating itself.
The disproportionate price of building land was an issue in the 1960s house building bubble, the Celtic Tiger bubble of the 2000s and now the recovery catch-up crisis in 2020.
The hoarding of land by developers also continues to be a factor restricting the release of land into the market, thereby keeping the price high. The vacant site levy hasn't come near addressing the problem due to poor implementation by councils.
It's not just voices from the past saying to get on with it and implement Kenny.
Derek Moran and Robert Watt, the secretaries general of the Department of Finance and Public Expenditure, delivered a paper setting out the economic realities for the new government. In a briefing to Fianna Fáil and the Greens, Watt put it up to the parties to push on with laws around compulsory purchases and let them be tested in the courts.
"He said we had to implement the Kenny Report because the problem was land adding to the cost in the dysfunctional housing market," a source in the meeting said.
"The uplift in value should accrue to the State - not a speculative landowner or developer. Let's say you lose a case in the courts, then you hold a referendum."
After a general election where housing was the singular issue, it's time to bite the bullet. The price of land is a significant factor in increasing the price of houses. The referendum option is firmly on the table as a priority for the new government, sources said.
Martin is also a fan of the Kenny Report, although it didn't make it into his manifesto. He got a legal opinion on it in the past two years from his party's justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan.
O'Callaghan recommended a different route of rezoning lands under county development plans for a specific period, but his proposal was deemed complicated and unworkable.
The necessity for the State to get stuck into house building and containing the price of new homes on the market is now the driving force behind the renewed focus on Kenny.
The discussion on housing also threw up tensions around the policy approach.
Fianna Fáil's Barry Cowen pressed Fine Gael on its delivery on housing. Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy pushed back, revealing he had twice been rebutted by the Attorney General in seeking emergency powers to build houses faster and bypass normal planning laws.
"Nothing is easy in housing," a Fianna Fáil source conceded.