Friday 28 November 2014

Fine Gael National Conference

Delegates have their tails up as party faithful come out fighting after Seanad vote debacle

Published 14/10/2013 | 05:00

THE Taoiseach was 20 minutes into his leader's speech on Saturday night when he announced the end-date of Ireland's occupation by foreign powers: "And so this evening, let me confirm to you that Ireland is on track to exit the EU-IMF bailout on December 15, 2013," he declared.

There was loud applause from the delegates, and a bit of cheering. It was the closest that Fine Gael members ever get to rowdy acclaim – they prefer to leave the yeehaw and yabba dabba doo stuff to whom they regard as the neanderthal rednecks of Fianna Fail.

But make no mistake about it – Blueshirt tails were rising at their national conference like a pale moon above the green mountains. There was an almost-forgotten scent in the Limerick air: a potpourri of optimism and confidence mixed with a dollop of self-satisfaction and a soupcon of skittishness.

The two-day pow-wow in a hotel bang-slap in the middle of Michael Noonan's home-turf was meticulously organised to within an inch of its life. It wasn't an ard fheis in the sense of including pesky and potentially controversial motions from delegates on the floor.

Instead, there were carefully choreographed Q&A sessions in which ministers could unveil some positive soundbites they had prepared earlier.

"My goal is to turn Angola into East Anglia – calm, predictable and a nice place to be," declared James Reilly – an officer currently engaged in serious trench warfare with Generalissimo Noonan over health spending.

Even the Finance Minister was a bit giddy. During a session on jobs and recovery he was asked if there were still issues to be sorted out before tomorrow's Budget.

"There's a few bits and bobs," he chuckled.

And Michael was as close to bubbling with enthusiasm as the Zen Buddha of Dooradoyle ever gets, concluding his speech with a frolicsome teaser for Budget Day.

"I look forward to you turning on your televisions on Tuesday – you'll be astounded at all the good news I'll be announcing," he grinned, tongue visibly wedged in cheek.

The crowd laughed – one fraught year ago that jocose remark could've been dangerous comedy even for a much-liked politician speaking to the party faithful on his home-patch.

And although a mere week had elapsed since the electorate had shown its collective middle digit to the Taoiseach and his Government over its plan to abolish the Seanad, the waters had already closed over the corpse of the dead referendum.

FG had adopted a "nothing-to-see here-please-move-along" attitude to the defeat – that is, in public at least. There was no stampede to quiz Taoiseach once again on his failure to land a Yes vote on what was widely regarded as a brainwave of his own. Instead, there was much earnest talk from various members on reform.

And here at least was a sign that Fine Gael in fact has been left more than a little rattled, both by the referendum result and by the rise of the group of departed dissidents, the Reform Alliance.

There were stirrings that a more combative Fine Gael is beginning to ready itself for the hand-to-hand combat of next summer's local and European elections. As would be traditional, there were plenty of kicks aimed at Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein – but now the Reform Alliance were also on the receiving end of a flurry of boots.

In the run-up to the Taoiseach's televised address at 8.30pm on Saturday night, various deputies were wheeled out to warm up the audience (the age-profile of which was decidedly on the venerable side).

And party chairman Charlie Flanagan didn't spare the lash on what he dubbed the "new troika in town – the RA". First, he said, there was Sinn Fein the "original RA . . . does anyone really believe that a North Korean-type solution is a good one for our people?" he demanded. Then he had a right old go at Fianna Fail, reserving special bile for Micheal Martin.

"The country cannot afford a spineless weather-vane that changes directions with every puff of wind," he sniped to cheers and roars from a crowd which always enjoys gunfire directed at the Soldiers of Destiny.

But even the new RA gang got it in the neck as he stuck the knife into "the Reform Alliance, wandering through Ranelagh, Rathmines and Rathgar, dancing to the tune of Svengali McDowell".

All very bloodthirsty. And it suits FG to present a united affront in the face of such numerous enemies, as it distracts from hostilities within the party – there are the still-livid senators, various heave-merchants hunkered in the long grass, the volatile 'five-a-side' squad.

But despite this and the looming Budget, tails were cautiously but firmly rising skywards in Limerick. Even the over-the-top security outside the venue only had to contend in the end with a handful of noisy pro-life protesters whose muffled shouts could be heard throughout the first half of the Taoiseach's speech.

But even they had fallen silent by the time an upbeat Enda named the day when we say, "here's your hat, what's your hurry" to the bailout gang. Though sadly he didn't proclaim December 15 to be henceforth known as B-Day.

Now that was a bummer.

Irish Independent

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