Sunday 25 February 2018

Whatever hopes Joan had, it was clear Enda wasn't in a giving mood

Noonan and Howlin helped to break tax logjam as Kenny's hard-ball tactics had Labour reeling

Normal political working begins to kick in from this week onwards
Normal political working begins to kick in from this week onwards
Enda Kenny, Joan Burton and the new Cabinet
Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

Minutes after Joan Burton was officially named the new leader of the Labour Party in Dublin's Mansion House last Friday week, the call went out.

"Hi Andrew, it's Ed, can you talk," said Joan Burton's chief of staff, Ed Brophy, in a call to Taoiseach Enda Kenny's economic adviser, Andrew McDowell.

The conversation was to begin the process of deciding the remaining future of the Government, or even indeed if it had one.

The two leaders put their two top advisers in place to begin the delicate process of negotiating an agreed agenda for the remaining 21 months of the Government's mandate.

Brophy and his team had been working on a policy document for several weeks, and later that evening, the document was emailed over to McDowell for his consideration.

The following morning, as Burton appeared on RTE Radio, Brophy, along with several other advisers, met in the Department of Social Protection to continue work on their policy agenda.

She was later in contact with her team by phone and email from her home on the Cabra Road, teasing out details.

Included in the document was their plan to grant medical cards to all over 70 years of age; a major plan to build social housing; as well as a low pay commission to examine increasing the minimum wage. They also wanted to examine a second year of child care to young parents and also a commitment that the Government's policy on collective bargaining be seen through as a matter of urgency.

Nothing in the document was deemed "too scary" by Fine Gael and there was a basis upon which talks could continue.

Brophy and McDowell continued to talk by phone throughout the weekend, and the pair met once face to face in "casual, opening, contact," as one senior source described.

Publicly, there was a lot of speculation in the media over the weekend as to which politician was going where. The Sunday Independent led with news that Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore were to follow Ruairi Quinn out of Cabinet.

By last Sunday night, it was clear that Alan Kelly was certain to be moving into Cabinet and Joan would be elevating a woman as well. While some speculated it would be Kathleen Lynch, Jan O'Sullivan's name was mentioned too. There was also increased talk that despite his poor showing in the leadership race, Alex White would make Cabinet, primarily for geographical reasons.

On the Fine Gael side, little or nothing was being said but the feeling was Jimmy Deenihan was to be dropped, James Reilly was moving from Health, and that Paschal Donohoe was certain to be elevated into Cabinet.


On Monday morning, the Taoiseach and his new Tanaiste met for the first time face to face in his suite of offices on the first floor in Government Buildings.

Having chatted with her staff and advisers beforehand, Burton made her way to Kenny's office and the meeting began at 10.20am and ran until 2.20pm.

At Enda Kenny's urging, and with Burton's acceptance, the leaders would meet alone, without their advisers. This was crucial, as it prevented either side from leaking while the talks were ongoing.

There they sat in the Eric Pearce-designed office, complete with an ornate Patrick Scott table.

But whatever hopes Burton would have of achieving real progress would quickly be dashed, as Enda was not in a giving mood. She found him as uncompromising as Eamon Gilmore had done for so long.

The pair, at this stage, set out their stalls about portfolios in a "full, frank, hard-hitting discussion," according to Government sources. There was no talk at this stage about personalities, just simply the carving-up of posts.

Burton introduced the idea that Labour wanted the Jobs portfolio, was interested in the EU Commissionership and wanted to swap Foreign Affairs for Environment, in order to pursue their social housing agenda.

The Taoiseach, while said to primarily to be in listening mode, dug in and said Fine Gael was not for moving on the Commissionership, but also made it clear that he could not relinquish the Jobs Ministry. He also initially made it clear that he was not that interested in Foreign Affairs.

The two leaders broke up to update their teams. While Labour was making progress in terms of policy, there was unhappiness at the lack of movement from Kenny on the portfolios.

Later that day, the Taoiseach and Tanaiste, reconvened again.

When it became clear Labour was not getting the senior Jobs portfolio, Joan was forced into looking for the next best thing, a super junior minister in Jobs.

Kenny didn't baulk at the idea and after further lengthy discussions, they broke up for the evening to allow Brophy and McDowell to hammer out the finer details.


If Monday had gone badly for Labour in terms of the portfolios, Tuesday was to bring little reprieve.

For Burton it became about salvaging whatever she could in terms of progress tangible to her troops.

It was again made clear that Enda was not for turning on the Commissionership. Phil Hogan was his man and that was that. "We are holding on to the Commissionership, end of," was what Burton was told.

Labour also at this stage gave up the ghost on the full Jobs ministry, and the conversation turned in earnest about how to create the Super Junior Jobs position for Labour, and how to beef it up as a role.

Labour wanted it to largely be about business development, supporting SMEs and taking charge of their main policy agenda such as the low-pay commission and collective bargaining. That was largely agreed by Fine Gael, who at this stage were very happy with its progress.

McDowell came back to Brophy - having been initially not that interested - saying Fine Gael would be willing to trade Foreign Affairs for Environment.

The two sides were also making progress on what would ultimately be their shared policy document, which would run to about 10 pages in length.

By Tuesday evening, it was looking like things were more or less done and advisers began mapping out a likely sequence of events for the following day.

Kenny and Burton would meet only for 90 minutes in the late afternoon to go through the document, line by line, and also to formally agree the new allocation of ministries.

With precious little leaking out, the media was forced to simply run holding stories about talks continuing. It was being kept incredibly tight.


If by Tuesday night the sides looked close to a deal, that would fall apart on Wednesday.

During the day, the two sides became embroiled in a major stand- off over what taxation promises the Coalition would make in the context of the budget.

"There became a discussion on how far and how prescriptive we could go on tax and taxation policy. That is what really held things up on Wednesday," said one Government source familiar with the process.

Several sources have confirmed that the discussion around tax became so embittered, it was more like a full-on budget negotiation between the sides. It was at this stage, that a meeting of Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin was convened to break the log jam.

"It was certainly contentious and we had to call in the two wise men, and they rightly said that you cannot start writing the budget now. So they pulled the language in the document right back, to a generalised form, a statement of intent," said one source.

Given the tax impasse, the Taoiseach and Tanaiste did not meet on Wednesday.

And another major complication had emerged. Kenny managed to infuriate the Labour side by his performance at Leaders' Questions. In the Dail, Mr Kenny announced that the Government was to bring forward plans to give free GP care to the over-70s, which was a main plank of the Labour agenda.

"We were pissed off. We hadn't anticipated it coming out before the document was published. And we were anxious that this be identified with the Labour Party. It was one of the things we wanted to own," said a Labour source.


The significant delays on Wednesday meant Thursday could not be the day to announce the deal.

Both Kenny and Burton had engagements lined up which prevented them from rolling the thing out on that day - which meant it would be Friday at the earliest.

TDs were informed by their whips that pairing arrangements, which are used to excuse them from votes, were suspended, meaning they had to be on standby in case news broke.

By Thursday afternoon, the tax policy was "sorted" and word began to leak out that it was good to go for Friday.

Noonan and Howlin reached a compromise position, which satisfied everyone. A meeting of the Economic Management Council had been pencilled in, but given the key intervention by Noonan and Howlin, it was deemed unnecessary.

With Brophy and McDowell happy to sign off on the document, a meeting between Kenny and Burton was scheduled for that evening, but predictably, it started late, at about 8.30pm.

Before she met the Taoiseach, Burton did a walk around of Leinster House, meeting her TDs and senators. This was because the normal Parliamentary Party meeting didn't take place.

"It was great to see her chatting to the troops, Gilmore never did that," said one Labour TD.

In their meeting, back in his office, Kenny and Burton went through the document, line by line again, and approved it. They agreed to publish on Friday, and broke up at about 10.30pm.

With the document agreed, 
attention now turned to who 
would be making the leap into Cabinet.


As with all leaders, Burton and Kenny had kept their reshuffle intentions very private, even from their closest officials.

Weeks of speculation would now be forgotten as finally the day had arrived for them to reveal their hand.

Burton began her process of reshuffling shortly after 9am. She first spoke to her outgoing ministers, Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn.

A disappointed Rabbitte would not be given any reprieve and had a curt "20-second" conversation with Burton, with whom relations have never been good. He blamed "age and chemistry" for his exit, and he clearly wasn't happy. A quick chat with Brendan Howlin, who was staying put, was more of a formality.

For those coming into Cabinet, Alan Kelly, her deputy leader was first to be told. Then Jan O'Sullivan, then Alex White and then Ged Nash, who was seen being escorted toward Government Buildings 
by Labour Party official David Leech.

Burton, apparently, considered long and hard about White, but ultimately geography saw him over the line. There is also some noise around his ending up as communications minister, 
given his long association with the State broadcaster, RTE, as a producer.

Joan had her team in place by 11.30am.

Enda was a bit behind. Having to dump his "good friend" Jimmy Deenihan out of Cabinet was "very difficult" and it took time. He also took his time welcoming Paschal Donohoe and the surprise package, Heather Humphreys, into the Cabinet.

The announcement had been due at 12 noon but it was 1.40pm before the new Cabinet entered the Dail Chamber.

While the initial excitement was for those who were elevated, a number of Labour backbenchers were audible in their bemusement.

There was a clear sense that, once again, they had been out-muscled, out-played and out-manoeuvred by Enda and Fine Gael. Very few were saying they had achieved enough to save their seats at the next election.

"We went through all of that and this is what we got. There is some positives but, Jesus, it is average at best. Far from great," said one senior Labour TD.

"We didn't get the Commissionership, we didn't even get the top seat in Jobs. This is not good, because it would appear we have gotten very little out of all of this," said another.

With plenty of new faces around the Cabinet table, it is make or break time for Joan Burton, the Labour Party and the Government as a whole.

Sunday Independent

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