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Andrew Lynch: If Noonan gets Finance, we'll know that FG are really running the show

It's time to kiss and make up. After tearing lumps out of each other for the past four weeks, Fine Gael and Labour now know that a two-party coalition is the only game in town.

A few diehards on either side may be holding out, but the Dail arithmetic points to just one conclusion -- and with the EU breathing down our necks, all the indications are that we will have a programme for government published by the weekend.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore know that the voters have presented them with a major historical opportunity.


In the past, there have been six FG-Labour coalitions and every single one of them has lost the next election.

With a huge Dail majority and a fragmented opposition, the next government should be able to buck that trend and remain in power until 2021 or beyond.

So as the two negotiating teams get down to serious business today, what will be the most difficult issues to hammer out?

When it comes to tackling the public finances, FG want to prioritise spending cuts over tax increases (roughly by a 3:1 ratio), while Labour wants a 50-50 split.

The obvious solution is to split the difference, which ironically would produce an economic policy almost identical to the one proposed by Fianna Fail.

FG say it's essential to get the deficit down to 3pc of GDP by 2014, Labour want to push the deadline out to 2016.

FG think it's a good idea to sell off some "non-strategic" semi-State companies, such as the ESB, Labour hate the thought of any more privatisation.

FG argue that there is no alternative to more social welfare cuts, Labour believe that the poor have suffered enough.

In other words, the fundamental split between the two is that FG want to get the economic pain over with quickly -- while Labour think that too much harsh medicine will kill the patient.

What will all this mean in human terms?

If you want to know which side has got the upper hand, the first item to check in the new programme for government will be the number of public servants to be axed.

FG are proposing a huge cull of 30,000, Labour a more modest 18,000 -- and if the Blueshirts have their way on this one, a showdown with the trade unions will be Taoiseach Enda Kenny's first major headache.

Of course, politicians negotiating a new government always have at least one eye on their own jobs as well.

Between now and March 9 when the Dail resumes, there will be endless speculation over who might fill the 15 seats around the Cabinet table.

In reality, however, one position matters more than all the others put together -- the keeper of the purse-strings at the Department of Finance.

FG and Labour both have a big political bruiser in mind for the job.

If Michael Noonan takes over, then it will be clear that the Blueshirts really are running the show.

If it goes to Pat Rabbitte, then the new coalition will look more like a genuine partnership.

A possible compromise is to split the responsibilities, with one man looking after the public finances and the other put in charge of public sector reform.

The timetable is tight.

A new Taoiseach will be elected in the Dail on Wednesday week, which means that Labour need to have a special conference at the weekend to approve any coalition deal.

Enda Kenny must also attend a series of crucial EU meetings over the next few weeks, where the renegotiating of Ireland's bail-out will be top of his agenda.

Most politicians are familiar with the classic Robert Redford movie The Candidate, in which a young lawyer is elected to the US Senate.

In the final scene, while his supporters are celebrating, he pulls his chief adviser into a room and asks, "What do we do now?"

That's the big question facing Kenny and Gilmore today -- and they don't have much time to come up with a convincing answer.