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Monday 20 August 2018

Shane Ross: Tweedle Dum is swapped for Tweedle Dee

By midnight last night I had not heard a word from Enda Kenny.

Nor, apparently, had Eamon Gilmore.

With characteristic humility, I concede that Mr Gilmore may be a little higher on the next Taoiseach's hit list than I am, but the lack of contact between the two most likely partners in the next government was odd.

Nearly 48 hours after the result of the General Election was obvious, it appears that Fine Gael was still standing aloof from the fray. Talks were being flagged for today.

The need for action is urgent. The Dail meets to elect a new government in just over a week on March 9. The biggest party in the State is adopting a remarkably casual approach.

Of course Enda is playing hardball. He is pretending to Labour that he has options, that he will make a call to the Independent TDs if Gilmore does not come to heel quickly. His negotiating position is much stronger if he adapts the manner of a man with alternative partners eager to bed down with him.

Yesterday, as Enda remained loftily above the negotiating game, Eamon Gilmore and other Labour party media heroes appeared distinctly nervous. They publicly rubbished the Independent TDs, suggesting that we were a technicolour group with incompatible policies. Labour was suddenly big in the undermining business.

If there is a Fine Gael deal with Labour, it will need a special Labour Party conference to ratify it -- although nobody rubberstamps a programme for government like the old socialists.

Battleground

Perhaps parallel talks will open. Fine Gael would be foolish not to explore all the options.

The battleground in negotiations with like-minded Independents would be on policy alone; but the key sticking point for talks with Labour will be the division of Cabinet seats. Independent TDs are unlikely to seek any of the jobs in Kenny's gift.

In stark contrast, the spoils of office will be fiercely fought over once talks open between the Fine Gael and Labour.

Irish politics remains deeply cynical. That was always the Fianna Fail way. Now Tweedle Dum is about to be swapped for a sanitised Tweedle Dee. Fianna Fail quangos bad, Fine Gael /Labour quangos good.

Manifestos will be dumped in any FG-Labour negotiations. Earlier accusations that Labour was a high tax party were already being pooh-poohed by conciliatory Fine Gael spokesmen last night as being the harmless rhetoric of the election campaign.

The love-in had begun. While Fine Gael is officially eyeing both suitors, the Independent option will leave 15 Cabinet seats in Kenny's gift, plus 11 Taoiseach's Seanad nominees and a host of plum jobs at State bodies. The Labour road will reduce the Taoiseach's patronage dramatically. He will probably be forced to concede six senior ministries to Labour; add the loss of four Seanad seats for friends of the socialists and a host of State appointments for old-fashioned lefties.

Despite this temptation, Fine Gael will bite the bullet and take the Labour road. The attraction of grabbing the vast patronage of government all for themselves will be overruled by the fear of a new politics infecting the old conservative ways. They will go with Labour because an alliance with Independents could take them into uncomfortable territory, the land of real change.

Nobody fears real change more than Fine Gael. Except possibly Labour.

Some newly-elected Independent TDs would be happy to talk to Fine Gael if they would contemplate radical, heretical solutions, not token reform.

The omens are not good. Kenny's stance on the EU/IMF negotiations refuses to tackle the fundamental truth that we cannot repay the amounts we owe, that we can default today or default tomorrow.

Scared

Both Fine Gael and Labour are running scared of the proposal to hold a referendum on the deal. They admit that the terms were disastrous but dismiss the referendum road as "populist". They should remember that the rejection of a diktat from Europe by the Irish people does not mean that we are wrong. Populist proposals sometimes have the unexpected merit of being right.

A Fine Gael/Labour coalition will temporarily disguise the sea change that has taken place in Irish politics. Tribal politicians will remain in charge, probably for the last time.

The real action in the next Dail is likely to be on the Opposition benches.

Those who have been dismissed as a 'motley crew' include coherent left-wing groups and Independents of different hues.

On the same side of the house a decimated Fianna Fail is likely to be overshadowed by voices from the new politics that are gaining ground fast in Ireland.

But, wait for it, Kenny and Gilmore, veterans of the old politics, will together settle for their comfort zones.

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