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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -1°C
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Column Hey Government, that’s not negotiating… THIS is negotiating

The Government’s method of pressuring EU leaders isn’t working, writes Fergus O’Connell. So here’s a suggestion…

ABOUT 20 YEARS ago, I managed the Irish subsidiary of a small US software company. Part of my job – apart from running the place – was to get the best remuneration (salary packages, stock options etc) I could for my staff.

Since I had no real power in this regard, the only technique I could adopt was schmoozing. Here’s how it worked. I would try to build cordial relations with the people who mattered. When they came to Ireland I would make sure they had a good time. In this case, the people who mattered were particularly fond of fine dining. So I would make sure they got to eat in good places – and that there was a steady stream of such places, each better than the last.

I also had to make sure that the subsidiary I managed performed outrageously well. We brought projects in on time or early. We went to extraordinary lengths to keep customers happy. Then, with all of this going on, I could strike and I would ask for what I wanted.

It wasn’t a very reliable method. In fact, it wasn’t reliable at all. Basically, I was schmoozing and asking for a favour. Sometime I succeeded, often I didn’t. And when I didn’t it was back to square one. Anyone who’s played the game Snakes & Ladders will know the feeling.

I mention all of this because the government refers to what it is doing with the EU as ‘renegotiating the bailout’.

No power

Now for me, the word ‘negotiating’ calls to mind an interaction between two sides, both of whom have some sort of power. A saleswoman and a potential customer, for instance. The saleswoman wants the customer’s money, the customer wants the saleswoman’s product. In the so-called negotiation with the EU, we have no power. So we should call it what it is – schmoozing and asking for a favour.

I have played that game. Now obviously, I have not played it at this level. I have never been a cabinet minister or a senior government official. But it is the same game. Exactly the same. We try to build cordial relations with the people who matter. We perform to the best of our ability. And then we ask for the favour.

It is as unreliable a method for Enda and Michael Noonan as it was for me.

But we have power we’re not using. And coming up is the time when we need to use it. We’re about to undertake the Presidency of the EU.

There’s a theory that EU membership has been good for Ireland. While this may or may not be true, there are definitely some who have benefited more than others. And clearly, the people who have benefited most are the people who negotiated the original deal and now, the people who maintain it.

These are the politicians and civil servants who take first class flights or the government jet, stay in top hotels, eat in fine restaurants, drink expensive wine, pocket generous expenses, and get lucrative assignments in different parts of Europe and – when it’s all over – retire on lavish pensions.

Doing things differently

And it is with these people that we have the power.

Next year, thousands of these same people are going to descend on Ireland and we’re going to bankrupt ourselves even further entertaining them. But what if we did something entirely different?

These visitors arrive into Dublin Airport but instead of passing them through the VIP area, they’re made go to the baggage claim in Terminal 1. Having reclaimed their bags they go outside to catch an Aircoach or a taxi. If they’re paying for their stay then by all means, let them stay at The Shelbourne or The Merrion or The Four Seasons. But if we’re paying, they should head for one of the many hostels or budget hotels that dot the city.

For the meetings in Farmleigh, they could again get a bus or a taxi. At lunchtime, the van from O’Briens or Café Sol or Insomnia would arrive with the sambos. In the evening, instead of a glittering dinner at Dublin Castle, the Department of Foreign Affairs would commandeer McDonalds in Grafton Street. Or if that couldn’t fit everybody, then a hotel that does cheap weddings. And instead of a seven course gourmet meal cooked by a Michelin-starred chef, how about vegetable soup, chicken and chips and jelly and ice cream? And as for the presents of silk ties that the Department of Foreign Affairs has gone to tender for …

If anyone questioned any of this, the explanation would be simple. Yes, we got ourselves into this mess, but really, you haven’t helped us. Rather, you’ve kept kicking us while we were down. As a result, it’s all we can afford.

Give them a day or two of this and then ask them would they like to renegotiate.

Would they what?

Fergus O’Connell writes about good management and productivity. His books are available here.

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