It’s December 2011. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition is riven with divisions over the budget and public sector reforms. Tanaiste Eamonn Gilmore lays an ultimatum on Enda Kenny’s desk. Labour says no, and they will not support the changes.
Across the road in Buswell’s, Leo Varadkar, minister of state for public sector reform, gets approached by one of the few new Fianna Fail TDs in the 34 seat strong parliamentary party. They know each other well, and sit down for a chat, and after a round, the FFer brings up the situation, and with it a proposition. FF are still doing poorly in the polls, even under new leader Michael Martin. Nobody wants a general election less than nine months after the last one. The FFer points out that Fine Gael has 65 seats, and Fianna Fail has 34 seats. A clear majority.
Leo looks on incredulously. Is the FFer serious? The FFer says that Fianna Fail would be willing to listen, maybe a couple of people should sit down and see what could be agreed? Where’s the harm?
Leo makes a few calls, the FFer reports back, and both parties agree to send some low visibility advisors to meet in a small country hotel just outside Arklow. Each team includes a political operator and an economist. The government people are deeply suspicious that this is a Fianna Fail trick to destabilize the government, and are only assured when Michael Martin rings the Taoiseach to give his word that there will be no leaks on the Fianna Fail side, and that he will publicly disown the deal if it leaks early. Martin warns his people that leaking the deal is a sacking offence.
The talks, after getting over the inital awkwardness, begin to move quickly. The issue of bringing Fianna Fail back into government so soon after the general election is dealt with by an offer from Fianna Fail to issue a formal apology, and voice a determination to work with Fine Gael for the benefit of the country. The policy differences are quickly surmounted, as both sides share a common platform of values and are willing to compromise on details. Fianna Fail agrees to take Labour’s ministerial portfolios.
The tricky issue is the question of a following general election. A young Fianna Fail adviser suggests an historical solution: That both parties agree to a formula similar to Michael Collins’s “pact” formula in the 1922 general election. Both parties agree to only run their existing deputies, and additional candidates can only be run with the agreement of both parties. A joint committee will be set up to agree additional candidates.
Finally, they agree that whilst both parties will not formally merge, their candidates will contest the election under the title of The National Union/An Aontas Náisiúnta.
Both leaders receive the agreement, and meet, agreeing to hold simultaneous meetings of their parliamentary parties within the hour, an action which triggers suspicions amongst political correspondents. Just before the two meetings start, The Irish Independent’s Fionnan Sheehan breaks the news that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are in negotiations. Labour ministers rush to meet, and Eamonn Gilmore demands that the Taoiseach rule out such a proposition. When the Taoiseach refuses to takes his call, Gilmore leads his party out of government in a fury. One Labour minister is actually sobbing.
The parliamentary party meetings are extraordinary affairs. The members are handed copies of the Arklow Agreement, and after fifteen (twenty five for some) minutes of hurried reading, and a bevy of “Holy God!” and “You’ve got to be joking” an almighty row breaks out. Both party leaders explain the logic, and the benefit to the country. One Fine Gael rural TD with a reputation as the big mouth of the house, on hearing a plea for the National Interest, loses his temper and leaps to his feet, shouting out a “F**K you and your national interest! What about my seat?” Then something extraordinary happens. At an agreed time, both the Taoiseach and the leader of the opposition leave their respective party rooms and switch places, walking to the other man’s room. Both men are greeted with stunned silence when they enter. Both ask for questions, and both take them for ninety minutes each. Each man is very impressive, after which they return to their respective parties, and put their final pitch. This, or a general election.
The media scrum as both leaders arrive at a joint press conference is unprecedented, with Vincent Browne breaking a hip in the melee, and having to be stretchered out on a large tray of cheese sandwiches. One of the younger media advisors has managed to knock up a display on the plasma screen behind them announcing The National Union under the images of De Valera, Collins, Lemass and Fitzgerald. Enda Kenny announces the agreement, and gives the most eloquent spech he has ever given, talking about the final healing of the civil war split and the reunification of two great parties in the common good. Michael Martin follows up with a speech which includes an agreed text apologising for Fianna Fail’s mistakes in government. The press conference is carried live, delaying Fair City, and at the end of it a group of young Fianna Fail and Fine Gael activists burst into a round of applause. Stephen Collins of the Irish Times notes the camaraderie amongst the younger activists to be similar to that of “young players from rival GAA clubs willing to stand together for the county”.
On the opposition benches, Sinn Fein TDs look on sourly as they have to move down to make room for the new leader of the opposition. His one plus point is that he is joined by three Fine Gael TDs who announce they are defecting to Labour, one because he is a genuine social democrat, the other two because they reckon they’re screwed in their constituencies. The new leader of the opposition will take what he can get, given the circumstances. The sobbing former minister continues to bawl.