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Sunday 20 August 2017

Lise Hand: Ghosts of FF's past refuse to go gentle into that good night

Bertie wasn't talking. At least not to the media who were circling him excitedly like Hollywood Red Indians around a paleface.

He had taken "a vow of silence", he explained, grinning broadly, before turning to greet another old pal.

"Ah, me oul segotia. Howarya doing?"

Bertie may not have been talking, but his presence at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis spoke volumes nonetheless.

Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, the Trappist Iar-Taoiseach drifted across the stage of the RDS, chilling the marrow of his party's young pretenders. Mayo TD Dara Calleary took one look at him, cursed aloud and fled.

Micheal Martin, obliged to enter the vicinity of the corner where Bertie was holding court, passed behind him at top speed, not even pausing to remove the knife which he had clinically stuck in his former leader's back the previous evening.

Micheal hadn't invoked his name during his opening speech on Friday, but it had been perfectly clear that Bertie was the target of his declaration that when the Mahon report is published the party will "act without fear or favour against anyone who is shown to have abused their position in Fianna Fail or in elected office".

So after such a slap-down, why did Bertie show up? Why did he stand in the hall for two hours, drinking coffee (from paper cups bearing the oh-so ironic logo 'Bean and Gone'), surrounded by old cronies such as former TDs Cyprian Brady and his brother Noel Ahern and his longtime lieutenant Chris Wall?

Bertie's motive for turning up may have been murky (it was ever thus), but it may well have been a kickback at Micheal, a warning that the man who held such an iron sway over Fianna Fail has no intention of going gentle into that good night.

A steady stream of delegates approached him for a signature or a chat.

And while nobody openly confronted him, there were uneasy mutterings.

"We're here for renewal. I don't think he should have come," said one delegate, Dubliner Noreen Barron.

And in a way, as he stood under the rather classy banners which trumpeted 'Renewal', signing autographs and posing for photos, Bertie summed up the dilemma of Fianna Fail -- a party desperate to move on, but still haunted by ghosts and shackled to the past.

Everything about Fianna Fail's first Ard Fheis since 2009 was geared towards moving on. There were progressive motions passed on same-sex marriage and on party ethics and voting practices. There was much talk of the revitalisation of the grassroots, of the numbers of new young members.

And yet, mingling with the delegates were members of the old guard -- Mary Hanafin and Mary Coughlan and Noel Dempsey, hanging around like spectres at the Fianna Fail feast.

There was the careful placement of fresh youthful faces within camera-shot behind Micheal during his speech, and the selection of the youngest TD, Westmeath's Robert Troy, to deliver the warm-up speech.

But even here be ghosts. Robert was a last-minute selection for this task. It was originally supposed to be delivered by the deputy leader, Eamon O Cuiv, but he and Micheal fell out spectacularly 48 hours before the Ard Fheis, over the looming referendum.

And so Dev Og wandered the RDS, which was festooned with images of his grandfather, as the party moves on without him.

He did receive loud applause from the 2,945 faithful when he entered the hall for the leader's speech, but it wasn't wild acclaim.

That was reserved for their most recent ghost, Brian Cowen. He had slipped into the venue undetected, but was awarded a thunderous standing ovation when he entered the hall just before the speech began.

The Soldiers stood and cheered their fallen leader. He may have presided over a disastrous administration which culminated in the arrival of the IMF and the loss of our economic sovereignty. But he's still one of their own, Fianna Fail to the bitter end.

And yet they saw no irony in surging to their feet in a standing ovation when Micheal Martin uttered the apology to the nation which had been so long in coming.

"We made mistakes. We got things wrong.

"And we are sorry for that," he declared.

Up they all flew, cheering. This was catharsis. The snapping of the shackles of the past, the drawing of a line in the sand. Mea culpa, now move on.

It's not that simple, of course, but up they flew nonetheless. But not Brian Cowen. He clapped a few times, but remained seated. How could he stand and applaud his own political demise?

Nor did Eamon O Cuiv applaud when Micheal ringingly declared his party will support the fiscal treaty referendum "because it is the right thing to do for Ireland". That split looks destined to return and haunt Micheal sometime soon.

There was a defiance to the cheers of the shell-shocked Fianna Fail troops. It's them against the rest of the world, and the most bloodthirsty roar was sparked when Robert Troy tore into the Shinners.

They rattled the roof when the barnstorming deputy bellowed, "For all their moralising, Sinn Fein are reverting-to-type with the politics of the ballot paper in one hand and the cartridges -- €50,000 worth -- in the other".

Bertie might've enjoyed that, had he stayed. But he was long gone. He drives his own car now, an 08 Ford Mondeo, and he and his pals hopped into it after their two-hour visit and headed off towards the city.

Had Bertie turned right instead, he would've driven past the RDS Simmonscourt, past the endless queue of thousands of Irish men and women seeking work on foreign shores, for there are no jobs to be had here.

And each one an accusing ghost of Fianna Fail's past.

Irish Independent

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