What Politicians can teach us about the art of negotiation - Barry McLoughlin

4th Jun 2020
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Hollywood sells the idea that political negotiations hinge around a ‘gotcha’ moment. A threat coolly delivered makes the other side back-down. A clever, well-delivered speech turns everyone misty-eyed and consensus pops up out of nowhere. Or a baddie holds a gun to someone’s head and counts very slowly to 10 while a suit helpfully moves matters along by shouting ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists” from a safe distance.

Negotiating as a process is rarely portrayed for what it is-a painstaking, skilled and learned art.

The negotiations to form a government during a pandemic, just as a recession hits, will be a long test for those involved. There are no short cuts to a successful negotiation, they require planning, listening, communication, persuasion and the ability to build trust. As negotiations proceed, deadlocks will have to be broken, outcomes guarded and momentum maintained. Not everyone has the skills or temperament to be part of a successful negotiation team.

But just what exactly is involved when negotiating the formation of a new government and how likely is it to work now?

Negotiations are either set up to succeed or fail from the outset. In theory, you can agree to negotiate with anyone about anything. In practice, this will only work if all parties come to the negotiation with a realistic motivation for success. Let’s say two farmers meet at a mart. One has a bull to sell. The other would like to buy a bull. Simple set up. But what if the seller is only using the mart as a way to gauge the price and interest in the bull, and the erstwhile buyer is just looking for a bargain? Both potentially have other options and therefore their motivation is to look around. Simply turning up to a negotiation does not change that. For a negotiation to work, all parties must stand to gain from an agreement and there are no other realistic options available to deliver similar gains.

The current Dail arithmetic sets the negotiations up for success because a three-party deal is the only realistic option. All three parties are motivated to get into government and quickly. Fianna Fail are taking a knock in the opinion polls. Fine Gael and the Green Party know that the majority of voters are keen to see a new government formed sooner rather than later-and those voters will not be happy if negotiations fail and everyone has to venture out to vote again, especially coming out of a pandemic.

One of the key planks of successful Government negotiation is planning – not simply planning to win, but planning for a negotiation that ends with everyone, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party walking away motivated to deliver their part of the deal. Which is why, from the point of view of professional negotiation, the Fine Gael/ Fianna Fail framework agreement was a clever start to proceedings because it established two things.

Firstly, the framework agreement was broad, covering everything that you would want a government to achieve. It lacked specifics, but it had no preconditions. The message was that everything here is up for discussion. It may not have looked like an early win, in negotiation terms, but that’s precisely what it was. The framework agreement has enough to get the smaller parties and independents at least thinking about engaging in the business of forming a Government. And so far, the Green Party have engaged and are now ready to enter talks.

Secondly, in devising the framework agreement, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail sent out a message-we’ve overcome our differences. This joint declaration is hugely significant. Jonathan Gould, a key Labour advisor to Tony Blair during the Good Friday negotiations, points out that leaders must have conviction for any negotiation to work, and if they don’t believe it will work, that quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The initial signals are good. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail want to form a government. They’re open to (almost) all-comers. And if the Green Party are to be effective and consistent in negotiations, they’ll have to work out what they’ll die for. What, in other words, is the outcome they must achieve for the game to be worth a candle.

Right now, the game is about a 7% per annum reduction in Greenhouse gas emissions. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have come back and asked the Greens how it can be achieved. All sorts of suggestions will be kited around. The Green Party needs to be careful at this point-negotiations get complicated, and they cannot afford to find themselves having abandoned the 7% because they got sucked into the process and took their eye off that goal.

The reality for Eamon Ryan is simple. The Green Party will go into government if they can deliver something that is identifiable as a Green Party initiative. An initiative that they should identify now and be prepared to die for in the negotiation.

Identifying goals is half the battle. Getting them into a Programme for Government is the key-and only going to happen if you can demonstrate how they can be implemented. This is a critical point for any negotiator to consider. Anyone can look for a campaign pledge to be delivered. But a realistic negotiation team will have come up with a comprehensive, costed plan to prove that the idea is worthwhile so that its implementation is focus of the discussion, not the policy itself. Remove the impediments to implementation of the policy and you are much more likely to persuade the other side to give you what you want.

In addition to this, the Green Party should look to their past negotiations and be wary of seeking agreement for anything that cannot be achieved using current structures, legislation and institutions. In 2007, one Green Party objective was prohibiting the advertising of junk foods to children. In their manifesto, it appealed to certain voters. In the Programme for Government, it was easily reduced to an aspiration because it would require a common forum for advertisers, media regulators and food producers that was simply not there at the time. The Green Party can make their goals realistic by demonstrating how they can be implemented during a negotiation.

Negotiation is hard work. Good negotiators can empathetically put across their position, but brilliant negotiators listen and engage with everyone around the table. This includes being aware of their own personal positions and prejudices and ensuring that they don’t get in the way of a successful negotiation. This can be hard for anyone. One approach any negotiator in this position should take is to establish why a position is so important to the other side-not dismiss it simply because it is what you expect from them. Once you understand the motivation behind a person’s position in a negotiation, you can objectively decide how to address it.

In 1989, Fianna Fail and The Progressive Democrats embarked on negotiations that were clouded by the personal animosity between Charles Haughey and Dessie O’Malley. Dessie had explicitly criticised Fianna Fail in his manifesto. Many in Fianna Fail considered Dessie O’Malley to be a traitor-and had said it to his face during the campaign. But like the current situation, the parties came together to negotiate because the numbers stacked up. Dessie O’Malley and Charlie Haughey led their respective negotiation teams. Both men had a difficult past going back many years. Yet the negotiation worked despite all of the personal issues between the leaders. On reason it worked was because The Progressive Democrats had a key requirement that motivated their base-a reduction in the top rate of tax. It was one policy that united their party. During the negotiations, Fianna Fail were reminded of this frequently and questioned it. Ultimately Fianna Fail understood that the Progressive Democrats could sell the coalition deal if their tax plan was delivered. So Fianna Fail made it happen to deliver the deal. (Specifically, Charlie Haughey boasted that he had made it happen-more of Charlie’s negotiation style later).

Negotiations need momentum. Momentum means attending to issues quickly and seriously as they arise to show how serous you are about reaching a deal. If you watch negotiations that take place around Courthouses, legal representatives on both sides scramble to get deals done. There are no delays in communicating positions or decisions because delays can be misconstrued, parties can then change their minds and suddenly the deal that you were creeping towards is gone. Personal attentiveness and timely responses never hurt in keeping things moving and driving towards an agreement.

Experienced political negotiators look for momentum in the areas of common agreement first because any agreement, no matter how small, builds momentum and trust. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have been careful not to do anything to impede momentum or trust so far. They have responded quickly to Green Party questions and have kept the tone business-like and positive. The talks are proceeding briskly and no one should fault the effort that all sides have put in so far.

If the parties can stay around the table, keep talking and not let personality clashes get out of hand, there will undoubtably be stumbling blocks. How much you know about what the other side can help at this point sides to reach the big decisions. One useful technique is to listen out for opportunities to offer something to the other side that you know is important to them-even if it costs you little. This is known as ‘trading in items of unequal value’.

One example was Bertie Ahern’s negotiation with Jackie Healy Rae prior to forming a government in 2007. Bertie needed some independents to make the voting arithmetic secure. Jackie Healey Rae had, like any local TD, a list of things he wanted delivered. But of more value to him, and at little cost to the state, was his demand that a specific civil servant be assigned to him from the Department of An Taoiseach. Jackie wanted access to information so he could announce things-not hear about them afterwards. His item of unequal value was knowledge and access to the Taoiseach.

Assuming the parties stay around the table, decisions are arrived at and compromises reached, the biggest threat to a government negotiation is that matters already agreed get second guessed. In his book on negotiation, “How To Get What You Want”, the late Tom Savage called this “A failure to protect outcomes”.

In corporate negotiations, ‘protecting outcomes’ means taking a pause to recap, minute and re-state agreed line items, then confirming with all the participants that everyone has a shared understanding. The more clearly and publicly decisions are stated, the more difficult it is for people to resile from them at a later stage. It’s good practice to do this as issues are thrashed out, thus building trust and momentum.

Political negotiators trade in trust. This trust can be eroded by second-guessing agreed outcomes through leaks. Leaks are the refuge of the poor or naïve leader, who values the instant gratification of a headline over gaining power. If every outcome is leaked, particularly out of context, then decisions could be overturned, momentum lost and trust destroyed.

Charlie Haughey was aware of the importance of protecting his outcomes in the Progressive Democrat coalition negotiations, so much so that he side-lined his own negotiation team of Bertie Aherne and Albert Reynolds near the end. His rationale was simple-if snippets of information leaked, paranoid Ministers might guess they were going to lose out and raise hell before a deal was reached. Tell them nothing, and everyone will be on their best behaviour. Albert Reynolds was a rival and to Haughey’s mind could not be trusted to keep the final deal a secret. Protecting the final outcome was crucial to getting the deal done.

If these negotiations to form a government succeed, it will be because thoughtful, diligent negotiators engendered trust on all sides. It will be because conviction politicians defended their “to die for” positions by coming up with ideas to make them work. It will be because the hard work of listening and persuading was kept up relentlessly.

The initial signs are good. In meeting to draft the framework agreement, and selling it to their respective parliamentary parties, Leo Varadkar and Michael Martin signaled to all that this deal is serious. By agreeing to go into talks, the Green Party are doing the same. There will be grumbling within the respective parties during the next few weeks and dissent at local levels is likely.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have led their parties to an historic position, with no leaking and little posturing. That’s a clear signal to the Green Party and any other potential partner; now they will have to do their bit.