It's official: the Fine Gael leader has recommended to his parliamentary party that they enter into formal negotiations with Fianna Fáil on a programme for government.

Leo Varadkar wrote to them last night stating: '... the public health emergency posed by Covid-19 marks a dramatic change in context.' So no more talk of 'leading his party' into Opposition. It's game on. 

But what happens now?

On initial examination - not much. That's because Mr Varadkar flies to Washington DC today for the traditional Saint Patrick's Day presentation of bowl of shamrock to the US President at the White House. No sooner will he return home at the weekend, than the deputy leader, Simon Coveney, will travel to New York for the city's parade.

This means that Fine Gael's parliamentary party won't meet to formally approve talks with Fianna Fáil until Wednesday 18 March, at the earliest.

A more likely date is the following day because the Dáil is due to reconvene at Leinster House for the third time and Fine Gael TDs and Senators will be in Dublin already for that. 

So will more than a week be lost due to St Patrick's Day obligations? I don't think so.

One reason is that Mr Varadkar last night announced his negotiating team: Simon Coveney; Paschal Donohoe; Heather Humphreys; and Hildegarde Naughton. 

Fianna Fáil already has its negotiating team up and running: Dara Calleary; Michael McGrath; Barry Cowen; Thomas Byrne; and Anne Rabbitte. 

It's also noteworthy that a statement from Mr Varadkar's office said: ''The parliamentary party will meet next week and the Taoiseach will seek their approval before any formal talks on a programme for government commence."

There is nothing, therefore, which precludes informal talks taking place.

I believe such informal talks between the two negotiating teams will get under way sooner rather than later. Fianna Fáil's Michael McGrath confirmed as much on RTÉ's Morning Ireland when he said that a "scoping discussion" would take place today between Simon Coveney and Dara Calleary. 

The two teams could identify where there is consensus, while also agreeing on the process of tackling where there are key policy differences.

Some of that will already have been identified by Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin in their recent two days of talks. 

It was also interesting to note that Mr Varadkar appointed Richard Bruton to chair what he's called Fine Gael's 'Reference Group'.

This new body is to ensure that the party's '... policy priorities are advanced in any discussions.'

This is important because Mr Bruton is reported to have been vocal in his opposition to a Fianna Fáil coalition.

Now he's in the process.

What else might happen? 

Well in the identical statement released by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, it said: 'Both parties will also continue discussions with the Green Party.'

It's clear that both want the Greens in any coalition government because the three parties would command 84 Dáil seats - exceeding the 80 figure needed to create a majority government. A few more Independents would give real solidity. 

Yet getting the Greens onboard will be no easy feat - particularly when that party has to get a programme for government passed by a two-thirds majority of any special delegate conference.

The Green's negotiating team will need to have been seen to have delivered big time for the membership. Maybe that explains why an idea filtered from Green circles recently that if a coalition was agreed with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - then Eamon Ryan should be Taoiseach for one of the government's five years in office. 

I remember being at Dublin's Mansion House in June 2007 to witness the surge of euphoria and hope when the Green Party delegates voted by an overwhelming majority to go into government with Fianna Fáil, led by Bertie Ahern. At the following election, the Greens lost every single one of their seats.

That is a brutal memory for them which will never disappear. One senior Fianna Fáil TD opined yesterday that 'ultimately I don't think they will go into government.' The truth is no-one is quite sure what the Greens will do - it will all depend on the compromises. 

This is why Fianna Fáil has spent so much time speaking to Independent TDs.  One Independent deputy told me after talks last night with Fianna Fáil that they had been 'constructive.' 

However, whatever might have been agreed between Fianna Fáil and the Independents may soon require the backing of Fine Gael - and that may well demand further negotiations. 

Without the Greens, the widespread belief at Leinster House is that it would be very difficult to bind together a large number of Independents into a cohesive and sustainable government. In such a scenario, the pressure would come on the Social Democrats to roll back on its refusal to go into government with the traditional 'two big beasts of Irish politics.' 

Pressure would also come on the next Labour Party leader to reconsider their stated objective of going into Opposition following a bad election. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael no doubt will argue - we had a bad election too, but are doing something for the good of the country. 

Watching from the margins, despite securing the largest number of first preference votes, is Sinn Féin.

The party has been busily engaging with other parties on the details of policy. However, this latest move by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil effectively pushes Sinn Féin to the sidelines.

Their chief negotiator Pearse Doherty told journalists yesterday that decision time was nearing: parties need to make-up their minds quickly. Mr Doherty said: '... this can't go on for more than a couple of days.' So expect a pressure-cooker effect on the talks. 

If all this fails, of course, then the last resort is another general election. It remains a live possibility even though a significant step forward was taken yesterday.

No-one believes these government formation talks will be easy given the number of parties and players involved. Instead, there is a widespread acceptance that it is going to be fiendishly difficult to put a government into place. 

But the issue which will drive any talks forward speedily, is the same issue which made Leo Varadkar recommend Fine Gael enter into government formation talks with Fianna Fáil: namely the coronavirus.

In their agreed statement, Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin said they were both: '... acutely aware of the enormous challenges facing the country, particularly with the onset of Covid-19.'

Ultimately, that could be the political battering-ram which delivers a government.