Terry Prone: I'd love to be a fly on the wall when the six negotiators meet to hammer out our future

Terry Prone

Three on one side. Three on the other. From the Labour Party, Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin and Pat Rabbitte. From Fine Gael, Alan Shatter, Michael Noonan and Phil Hogan.

Six people trusted by two political parties to negotiate the future of Ireland. If they do it right, the agreements they reach will ensure stability for the next five years and allow them to deliver pain -- more pain -- to the public without fear of their Government collapsing.

This isn't horse-trading.

This is the most important task most of them will ever undertake. Undoubtedly, many if not all of them will subsequently be ministers, but the blocks they lay down this week will heavily influence and even constrain what can be done by any minister in the future government.

That's why each leader has picked his heavy lifters for the job. That's why each man has picked a variety of personalities, because in any negotiation, you don't want a team on either side made up of similar personality types.

Let's be honest: there will be some Good Cop/Bad Cop going on around the negotiation table. Alan Shatter heads the Bad Cop division. This is a lawyer of enormous self-confidence who is possessed of a relentless aggression any Rottweiler would be proud to own. Shatter will take the fight to the other side with a cold-eyed determination and a fierce energy.

His opposite number on the Labour side is Joan Burton, the least experienced negotiator of the lot. Her key strengths in this joust are twofold.

First of all, she is diligent. Burton has never failed to read the tiniest print in any document coming across her desk. Her second great advantage, believe it or not, is her capacity to lose her marbles.

In these negotiations, Burton losing it in pursuit of some objective will be genuine, but it will also allow her colleagues to intervene and reduce the tension level while shruggingly pointing out to the Fine Gaelers that she personifies the attitudes they will have to deal with at their party conference.

Michael Noonan is undoubtedly in the most detached position of any of the negotiators. He's been there, done that, many times before. He sees around corners, stays calm and when the two sides are deadlocked and filled with hatred for each other it will be Noonan who slithers out a silky comment that makes everybody laugh and distracts from the building enmity.

Mismatched in size but not in experience are Brendan Howlin and Phil Hogan. Howlin knows all the moves. He will go into these meetings with a mental set of to-die-for objectives, and it will be well-nigh impossible to shift him from those objectives, not least because this is probably his last chance at power. Pat Rabbitte has the same strong incentive.

Least known of the six is Big Phil Hogan, the undercover force within Fine Gael for several years. He's the one who will most enjoy the process leading to power: the feint, the parry, the strategic surrender. He is realistic and relentless.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that meeting room...