Andrew Lynch: Forget trying to pull together -- what we need is an election
The charade continues. Brian Cowen may have finally caved in to pressure and invited the Opposition leaders in for a friendly chat about the Budget, but anybody who thinks this puts us on the road to a national government is only deluding themselves.
The reality is that nobody in Leinster House expects this initiative to come to anything -- but equally, nobody wants to get the blame for collapsing the talks in case they're accused of being unpatriotic.
In theory, the idea of all parties knocking heads together and finding some sort of common ground makes sense. The European Commission has made it clear that if they're going to keep on lending us money, they need to see a credible four-year plan to reduce our massive budgetary deficit.
Above all, the financial markets are demanding certainty -- and the only way to deliver that is a long-term strategy that's backed by everybody who's likely to be in power between now and 2014.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Sitting down with the enemy goes against every tribal instinct in Brian Cowen's body, while Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore are afraid that they'll end up sharing the blame for Fianna Fail's mistakes.
The only person who seems really enthusiastic is John Gormley -- and unfortunately, the Green Party leader's inept handling of the matter has damaged whatever chance of success it once had.
Gormley's first mistake was to float the idea to a reporter, whom he now claims caught him on the hop. It then took him a good 48 hours to explain whether he was talking about a full-blown national government or just a brainstorming session.
Fine Gael and Labour were insulted that the invitation had come from the coalition's junior party, while the Taoiseach went into a sulk over not being consulted in advance.
Now that those little hissy fits are over, it seems likely that some sort of official meeting between the party leaders and their finance spokespeople will take place. While all sides will do their best to look as if they're taking the talks seriously, however, it's hard to imagine that anything meaningful will come out of them.
The reality is that with less than eight weeks to go before the Budget, it's too late to get the Opposition on board -- if anything, the parties are actually starting to pull further apart.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore has taken a lot of flak for his interview with this newspaper on Tuesday, in which he appeared to claim that he could plug the deficit without reducing social welfare or hitting middle-income earners.
Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar has gone to the other extreme, proposing a whopping €6bn of cuts this year in order to reduce the pain later on. Barring a miracle, these two parties will form the next government -- but if they can't even agree among themselves, it's hard to see how they could sign up to a deal with the people they want to replace.
The obvious way to sort all this out would be an immediate General Election. That would give the people a chance to vote in a new Taoiseach who could at least claim that he had a mandate to make tough decisions.
With FF flatlining in the opinion polls, however, Cowen is likely to cling on until Christmas at least -- leading to the crazy situation of a government setting out a four-year strategy that its opponents will have to implement.
The real significance of Gormley's move is that it signals an end to the sham marriage between himself and the Taoiseach. Since an election is likely to take place in the first half of next year, the Greens are desperately looking for some exit strategy that will allow them to leave government with their heads held high.
Even if they know this cross-party initiative is unlikely to achieve any meaningful result, at least they can claim that they tried.
Talk is cheap, but putting it into action takes real courage.
The public does not want consensus, it wants proper leadership -- and if the political system can't supply that, it should do the decent thing and let the voters have their say.