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How Ireland’s triumvirate Government found its feet

From a shaky start to a slow coming together and a recognition of common interests

“It’s like a triumvirate, in the Roman style,” says one Government staffer, half serious, half in jest, reflecting on the three-headed leadership of the coalition that reaches its one year anniversary tomorrow.

This is not, perhaps, the best example to follow. There were two Roman triumvirates. They worked for a while, but ultimately the participants fell out and most ended up dead. Though one became the first emperor. Maybe that’s what this staffer is thinking of for his boss.

A better comparison might the Irish triumvirate of John Bruton, Dick Spring and Proinsias De Rossa, the three leaders who led the Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left coalition from 1995-1997. Having run a generally well-regarded government, they still lost the next election to Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fáil. Bertie went on to be emperor of Celtic Tiger Ireland, in a way.

The relationship between the three leaders of the current coalition parties - Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Minister for Climate Action and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan - is the key dynamic and the central focal point of decision-making in the Government.

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It has stabilised and settled down into a workable modus vivendi that keeps the government functioning, has managed Covid, and now looks forward to the post-Covid era

The three men are different by personality, background, temperament and politics. Their early engagements started long before the Government was formed, earlier than any of them have admitted. Settling into office and figuring out how their relationship would work took some time, and there were - and continue to be - some “trust issues”, as insiders diplomatically put it. But it has stabilised and settled down into a workable modus vivendi that keeps the government functioning, has managed Covid, and now looks forward to the post-Covid era.

The beginning, a year ago, was not auspicious. The Government had no sooner formed, than it lost a minister, and then it lost another one, traumatic events that shook the new administration to its core. Varadkar warned a Cabinet meeting of his unhappiness at procedural matters (later found to have emanated in his office) and grumped that if this was the way they were doing business, they wouldn’t be doing business for very long. The pandemic, at bay for the summer, roared back in the autumn. Fine Gael wondered what it had left itself in for, and wasn’t shy of wondering aloud.

But this often happens to coalition governments; a shaky start gives way to a slow coming together, and a recognition of common interests. That is what has happened this coalition, in its own particular way.

According to several insiders, familiar with the inner workings of Government and who spoke to The Irish Times last week, three things have contributed to the stabilisation of the administration since its early wobbles.

Firstly there has been the inevitable realisation that the political consequences of falling apart would be far worse and more immediate than sticking together. Secondly, the experience of governing through the adversity of Covid has bound the three parties together. And thirdly, the three leaders have, over time, forged a strong working relationship that directs and controls the government from the centre.

There were trust issues at the start between Micheál and Leo, but I think it's much more comfortable now

All involved say that last summer and the initial bedding in period was difficult and fraught, with lots of people wondering if it would last. But it nearly always does.

“I think they’re getting on better now than at the start. There’s a very frank relationship. There were trust issues at the start between Micheál and Leo, but I think it’s much more comfortable now,” says one person at the centre.

“I suppose there was residual distrust between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at the start. They used to be opponents, after all. But I think they decided: ‘Feck it, we have to make this work’,” says another insider.

“I think there’s a pretty high level of trust now,” says one Cabinet minister. “You can see it.”

Others however warn that there is still an unease in the Varadkar-Martin relationship. “I don’t think he 100 per cent trusts Leo,” says one person. “I don’t think anyone does, actually.”

If he does not, Martin goes out of his way to hide it- people in all parties, including Fine Gael, acknowledge this. He is careful to acknowledge Varadkar’s role as the second-in-command of the Government. “Micheál chairs the Cabinet as the Taoiseach, not as the leader of Fianna Fáil,” says one person at the table. Both Fine Gael and Green sources were effusive in their praise of Martin.

How Cabinet works

Key to holding together a disparate Government is the structures at the centre, and Martin has publicly acknowledged the work of the chefs de cabinet of the three party leaders. Deirdre Gillane is Martin's chief aide, troubleshooter and confidante and she works closely with Brian Murphy, Varadkar's long-time adviser. Eamon Ryan splits the chef de cabinet job between experienced Green handler (who also did a stint in the last government with independent minister Katherine Zappone) Donal Geoghegan and long-time parliamentary aide and adviser Anna Conlon.

“The whole business of how the Cabinet works and how the entire government works had to be redesigned,” says one Fine Gaeler who served in the previous two administrations and admits that it took the party some time to adapt to no longer being top dog in Government.

The week begins with a meeting between the three chefs and the press secretaries to plot the week ahead - what’s on the Cabinet agenda, what are the issues likely to dominate the week, what’s the media doing, etc.

That’s followed at lunchtime by a meeting of advisers from every department intended to manage the week ahead and then later that evening the three leaders and the chefs meet to run through the cabinet agenda and settle any difficulties - or, sometimes, to postpone decisions where agreement isn’t possible.

This, says one minister, is where the real decisions get made. It’s in this forum that the relationship between the three men has really been forged - here, and the constant stream of text messages that fly between them. No previous administration has seen so much government by text. It is to be hoped that the archives are preserved for historians, as they won’t be able to understand how decisions were made and why without the text message record. Those close to the three men remark that these meetings have become more relaxed - and the three easier in each other’s company - over the past six months.

Tuesday morning’s Cabinet meeting - usually 9am - is preceded by breakfast meeting of each leader with his party at 8am, essentially for a debrief on what has been agreed and why. If the three leaders complain about their counterparts, it is rare. Cabinet then proceeds but is now much more of a clearing house for decisions effectively already made. Long discussions are not a regular feature.

Common purpose

Ministers say that personal relations are better now. One thinks this is because they are seeing each other now, rather than communicating over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Several remarked on this point at a recent Cabinet meeting, in fact.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the Government has identified a common purpose and is pursuing it with a united effort, it is true that this goal is closer now than at any time since the beginning of the administration a year ago.

"There's something in it for everyone," says one senior official. The Greens, he says, are getting what they want on climate. Fianna Fáil is back in Government and Martin has his chance to make a mark on areas like housing, health and the North, all of which he regards as core to his party's mission and identity. Varadkar has led Fine Gael into Government for a record third time, and he will get to be Taoiseach again at the end of next year.

The tripartite nature of the Government has diminished - though hardly extinguished - the FF-FG rivalry. It is less ever-present now. For all the daunting challenges that face it externally, from the inside, many people say now what they wouldn’t have said six months ago: it feels like a Government that has found its feet.

Says one experienced insider, “A three-legged stool sits up easier than a two-legged one, I suppose”.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times