Lise Hand: Shinners make meal of Aras shindig as FF eat humble pie
It was a tale of two parties, in more than one sense. It may have been raining cats, dogs, pitchforks and hammers in Dublin on Saturday night, but the gladrags (and galoshes) were still donned by the foot-soldiers of both Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail.
Sinn Fein was holding a rally to officially launch the Aras campaign of its man, Martin McGuinness; and Fianna Fail -- which has no dog in this particular fight -- was throwing its annual fundraiser, the President's Dinner (or almost annual, as last year's bunfight was hastily cancelled as the party was embroiled in its disorderly stampede towards the cliff-face).
Even amid the meltdown, which was in full flow a year ago, it would've seemed ludicrous to predict that Fianna Fail would be sitting out a presidential contest -- especially since the incoming Uachtaran na hEireann will be in situ for the centenary of the 1916 Rising.
But then nobody would've predicted 12 months ago that the 2011 race for the Aras would have seven runners and one of them would be Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
There was a buzz of expectation in the soggy air and a few well-known names had turned up to help out at the launch in the Pillar Room in the Rotunda Hospital on Saturday night.
Artist Robert Ballagh acted as MC, and the warm-up line-up included the party's vice-president and Dublin Central TD Mary-Lou McDonald, singer Frances Black and author Peter Sheridan.
Black revealed Martin had given her a present during a visit to Derry. "It was the gift of a poem that he had written," she explained. She read the poem, called 'Fullerton's Dam', which began, "Purple heathered hillsides/clothe the peaty bogs/leaching streams of water/swimming pools for frogs". It was, Martin later explained, a poem written to honour a slain friend -- Sinn Fein Donegal councillor Eddie Fullerton. It looks as if Michael D Higgins isn't the only poet vying for the Park now.
Suitably warmed up, the crowd rose to applaud Martin on to the stage. Despite the jolly mood, Martin had obviously been brooding about a jibe flung at him during Friday's 'Late Late Show' debate, when Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell mocked the Sinn Fein candidate's fondness for dropping the name of Nelson Mandela at every opportunity. "You're no Nelson Mandela, Martin," Gay sneered.
After mulling over this for 24 hours, Martin finally succumbed to l'esprit d'escalier, even as he insisted that he "wasn't in the business of attacking any other candidates". He told the audience: "I never claimed to be Nelson Mandela. I was going to say, but I resisted it, that 'you're no Michael Collins'."
That brought the house down. Sinn Fein tails were up.
But so, too, albeit halfway up, were those of the shell-shocked Soldiers of Destiny who were tucking into beef or salmon in the Burlington Hotel at around the same time that Martin was snacking on Gay Mitchell.
More than 1,100 party faithful forked out €85 a head to attend the dinner, including some who had lost their seats in the bloodbath, such as Mary Hanafin and Mary Coughlan. Micheal Martin gave a never-say-die speech. "There is a lot of fight left in this party," he insisted. They'll need all the fight they can muster. For Sinn Fein are more than ready for a right old republican rumble.