Lise Hand: No chance for Simon Coveney to make beef announcement in the boss’s backyard
Enda has waited patiently since getting into Government Buildings almost exactly four years ago for the chance to make a triumphant return to his home turf as Taoiseach, with a full national conference in tow.
Of course a lot of water (Irish Water in particular) has flowed under the country’s bridges since the heady days of Fine Gael’s huge electoral gains in 2011. As this weekend’s conference could well be the last one before the next poll, the party has a lot of wooing to do in order to win back a beady-eyed electorate.
And one of the most bruised sector is rural Ireland, large swathes of which has yet to witness the green shoots of recovery - and Fine Gael has traditionally been the party of choice for big farmers in particular.
And so the opening night of the two-day conference in the TF in Castlebar, the party went all-out to appeal to the farming community and rural Ireland.
When the Taoiseach took to the stage for his opening address, this speech honed in on rural schools, the agri-food sector, the rural development programme, the dairy industry and most especially the beef industry.
In fact, Enda stole the thunder of Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney by announcing from the podium that China has lifted the ban on importing Irish beef - a revelation greeted with cheers and applause. Perhaps feeling a bit guilty about the theft, he heaped praise on Simon Coveney during his speech, lauding his “diligence” in brokering the deal.
Of course there was no chance that Simon would have had the chance to make such a significant announcement in the boss’s backyard.
When it was his turn to address the audience of about 500 delegates, Simon wryly thanked the Taoiseach for “giving my speech”. But the minister stayed on message that Fine Gael is the farmer’s friend. “You can be sure of one thing in Ireland - that when a Taoiseach speaks about agriculture like Enda Kenny did this evening, it is always a Fine Gael Taoiseach,” he declared.
Agriculture aside, political-watchers will be keeping a close eye on how Simon is being received by the delegates, given that the Cork South Central TD is a short-odds favourite for the leadership when such a vacancy should arise (though it’s heresy to speak of such things in Mayo). And ditto with the other front-runner, Leo Varadkar, who was looking nonchalant on the platform as Simon was garnering bouquets from the Taoiseach.
There’s a full programme up for discussion on Saturday, with the prime live TV slot featuring Ministers Richard Bruton, Paschal Donohoe, Michael Noonan - fresh from saving Greece from falling over the cliff - and also Simon Harris and Dara Murphy in a discussion jauntily titled ‘Securing the Recovery’.
Naturally, not everyone is in agreement, and a protest is expected outside the venue - hence the rings of steel barriers and sturdy Gardai encircling the hotel. Whether they manage to spoil the Taoiseach’s homecoming party remains to be seen.