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The curious case of two leaders, one phone call and a big row

Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin had a four-minute phone conversation that sparked a big dispute between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil yesterday.

TALKS BETWEEN FINE Gael and Fianna Fáil moved a step closer yesterday after the first known contact between the two party leaders since the general election.

But after the bizarre series of events that followed the four-minute phone call between Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin there will be concern about the ability of the two parties to strike any sort of deal to govern the country.

It all began just before lunchtime yesterday when Martin reached out to the Taoiseach following a story on the front of yesterday’s Irish Examiner. The article suggested that next Wednesday’s vote to elect a Taoiseach could be deferred in light of the ongoing political stalemate.

Martin was concerned about that prospect and sought clarity from Kenny. He called the Taoiseach’s mobile, got no answer and left a message. He then rang the Department of the Taoiseach and left word that he wanted Kenny to come back to him.

When Kenny did phone Martin back the pair spoke for around four minutes. During the call, Martin conveyed his concern about the report that Wednesday’s vote could be deferred.

29/3/2011. Dail debates Moriarty Reports Source: RollingNews.ie

“I made it clear that I wouldn’t be supportive of that and I asked that the vote would go ahead next Wednesday and fall whatever way it falls and that that’s important,” Martin told reporters afterwards.

The Fianna Fáil leader said Kenny confirmed that the vote would go ahead.

Let’s meet

The pair then discussed their respective ongoing negotiations with independent TDs. Martin outlined his plans to hold talks with them on Monday and Tuesday of next week, while Kenny said he hoped to conclude the Fine Gael talks today.

According to Martin, the pair then agreed to meet after the Dáil vote on Wednesday:

 We, on the phone, agreed that we would engage in the aftermath of that and following the conclusion of those discussions and the vote itself on Wednesday.

However, Fine Gael initially disputed this element of the conversation, sources insisting that Martin never asked to meet the Taoiseach. But they later backtracked and admitted there was an agreement to meet after next Wednesday.

17/6/2010 Fine Gael leadership Contests Source: RollingNews.ie

During the call, Martin also conveyed his unhappiness with Richard Bruton’s “intemperate” intervention on Morning Ireland on Tuesday morning when he ruled out supporting a Fianna Fáil-led minority government. Martin said Kenny “took the point on board”.

After the call ended. Fianna Fáil sent a text to journalists at 1.31pm informing them of a media opportunity with Martin on the Leinster House plinth at 2.15pm. Around the same time, Martin was having lunch in the Leinster House canteen with senior advisors.

According to Fine Gael, shortly after the call ended, the Taoiseach “on reflection” thought it would be helpful to meet Martin as soon as today, in addition to the meeting next week.

Kenny called Martin back, but there was no answer. Then he sent a text offering to meet after Fine Gael concludes its initial talks with independent TDs this afternoon. There was no response from Martin who was having lunch.

As the media assembled on the plinth at around 2pm, Martin was spotted leaving the main Leinster House complex to return to his office in LH2000 prior to the press conference.

The press conference 

He then emerged a short time later to speak to the media and reveal that he had called Kenny.  Clearly anxious to see what he was saying, Fine Gael had one of its digital media team Periscoping Martin’s press conference.

At 2.35pm, one senior Fine Gael source texted journalists claiming that Kenny had “reached out” to Martin offering to meet today, but that the Fianna Fáil leader had said he won’t do it until after Wednesday’s vote.

This was a clear attempt by Fine Gael to try and show that Kenny was taking the initiative, just as Martin was attempting to do likewise. The only impact was confusion, however.

Journalists receiving the text about Kenny’s offer began putting questions to Martin, asking if there had been an offer from the Taoiseach to meet today.

A slightly hesitant Martin responded: “Not during our conversation. He may be texting or whatever like that… ”

As journalists peppered him with questions, the Fianna Fáil leader gave a firmer answer, insisting: “No, we agreed that we wouldn’t meet tomorrow.

We, on the phone, agreed that we would engage in the aftermath of that and following the conclusion of those discussions and the vote itself on Wednesday.

31/03/2016. General Elections Talks on forming a G Micheál Martin speaking to the media yesterday Source: Leah Farrell

He also noted that he didn’t have his phone “here with me now”. Asked later in the press conference if Kenny had texted him, Martin said: “No.”

The spin 

After the press conference ended, there was furious spinning from both sides.

Fine Gael insisted that Kenny had offered to meet today, but that Martin only wanted to meet on Wednesday. Sources insisted there had been no agreement to meet on Wednesday because Martin had never asked to do so.

But Fianna Fáil insisted there had been an agreement and that Martin had only discovered a text from Kenny – offering to speak today - after he had spoken to the media on the plinth.

Martin wrote back to Kenny with a text that read: “As agreed, we will talk again on Wednesday.”

It was only late last night that Fine Gael finally acknowledged that there had been an agreement to meet on Wednesday, but that Kenny “on reflection” thought it would be good to meet today, in addition to next week.

It has subsequently emerged that Kenny and Martin spoke again on the phone last night and agreed to begin talks next week.

What it all means 

The dispute is not major, nor fatal to the forthcoming engagement between the two parties, but it does underline the extent to which both have competing agendas.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil want to be in a position to lead the next government, but they also have to acknowledge that they will need each other in order for that government to function.

After being asked for specific details about the yesterday’s phone conversation, Martin at one point noted that he “didn’t record the interview”.

For all concerned, perhaps both sides should have note takers at the ready next time the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders speak.

Analysis: After 33 days, is there any sign of a new government?

Read: Enda and Micheál finally speak on the phone – but there’s confusion over who said what

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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