Thursday 18 December 2014

John Drennan: FG ideals lost amid trappings of power

Still no sign of Kenny's 'democratic revolution' as his party embraces the politics of 'we're in', writes John Drennan

Published 01/04/2012 | 05:00

The more homespun delegates were certainly impressed by the palatial location of the first ard fheis in 15 years where Fine Gael is in power.



As they gawked at the cheap glitter of a troubled National Convention Centre which Fine Gael criticised so avidly in opposition and booked so speedily in government, one could hardly carp at the comment that "the farmers will be fierce impressed when they see this" or the chuckles of "it's grand to be in the place all Bertie's money built". After all, even dogs of the Fine Gael variety are entitled to one day where all things are "bright and beautiful".

There was more than a small element of Cecil Frances Alexander's musings about "the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate" surrounding the respective states of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail this weekend.

As Fine Gael luxuriated in the faux marble and the Celtic Tiger grandeur of the National Convention Centre, the perennial loser of Irish politics was certainly intent on showing it was the proper inhabitant of the rich men's castle.

In contrast, whatever about God, its insatiable desire for Mammon has relegated Fianna Fail to the gate lodge of Irish politics and if it does not proceed bravely, yet very carefully, it may soon be outside the estate, as distinct to its current status of lingering forlornly, like a wetter version of Penelope Keith, at its margins.

Back at this mausoleum to the great fallen gods now thrust into Nama, it is strange to think that had all gone to plan we would at this point be experiencing the lead-up to Fianna Fail's attempt to win a fourth General Election on the trot.

Remember 2007? Bertie? The three-in-a-row and the "unsinkable" coalition? All, well okay, most of you, cheering as we waited for Kenny to head off to the same old bone-yard as John Bruton, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and the rest of the legions of the defeated.

Back then the plan was for a 2012 election with Bertie stepping down in 2011, or maybe not, for it is hard to go when you are the most popular politician since Daniel O'Connell, but he would probably have left the field free for a triumphant Biffo to come on like the political equivalent of an impact substitute.

The failure of that particular plan was epitomised by the spectacle of Fianna Fail, shivering like those misfortunate naked French aristocrats awaiting Madame la Guillotine, as it prayed that rancid old political spectres like Pee Flynn and GV Wright wouldn't embarrass the party by turning up to fight their proposed expulsions.

Within that party all the privilege, the wigs, make-up and decent drapery of power have been shredded to such an extent that "our" Bertie is viewed, even by Fianna Fail, with the same warmth as one of those Nazi generals in East Germany, who were kept alive by their Russian captors in order to humiliate the defeated all the more effectively.

As Fianna Fail spent Friday creating an Orwellian-style series of non-persons, nothing epitomised the differences between the parties more than Kenny returning from yet another triumphant overseas tour with a fistful of Chinese yuan.

It is in truth a bit of a leap of faith to believe our new Chinese partners will be gentler overlords than the EU, but it made for some contrast with Micheal Martin's last interaction with the Chinese when the hapless Fianna Fail leader's attempt to imitate a Chinese accent evolved into a gaffe incorporating the worst elements of Father Ted and David Brent.

Yet they are still resilient souls in Fianna Fail. By the close of the week the party had transferred the voters' attention from the mote Mahon had stuck in their eye to the beam called Moriarty that continues to linger in Fine Gael's increasingly blinkered eye.

The party also secured the peaceful departure of all that old mafia, whilst after fears that St Luke's would turn into the Stalingrad of Drumcondra, by Thursday poor Micheal had instead obtained the unconditional surrender of the Ahern brigade without firing a single shot.

Fianna Fail may well be a ghost village but its regenerative capacities should still spook the politically clever.

And surprisingly, when it comes to Fine Gael, even in this glassy, vulgar mausoleum with its wall-to-wall photographic tributes to the modest leader Kenny, "all is not sweetness" or "sound".

The new political millionaires may well be savouring the delights of being the rich man in his castle, but a pretty nasty mob of cantankerous peasants gathered outside their perfect gated community yesterday.

In truth, even if the peasants weren't demonstrating outside of the aristocrat's castle, the Fine Gael family is not living in perfect harmony.

The most public example of the real frailty of Fine Gael's gilded Gatsby-style world is the escalating deterioration of the status of the party's chief enforcer, Phil Hogan.

The household charge fiasco smacked of the sort of misgovernment we normally associate with Fianna Fail, but Hogan's poll tax is only one example of how, at first slowly, but now ever more swiftly, these genteel conservatives are retreating from their promises for a democratic revolution. Instead, increasingly we hear statements about how securing stability is a real achievement.

In fairness, after the experience of being thrown over a cliff four years ago, mere stagnation represents an improvement on sheer terror.

But if the "stability" Fine Gael is offering is one of things continuing very much as they did before the great implosion, with the sole exception being that political and semi-state appointees now come from Fine Gael rather than Fianna Fail stock, the revolution of last year is going to start looking terribly pointless.

And should such a sense of betrayal spread amongst a disillusioned electorate, Fine Gael's pleasant standing at the top of opinion polls will erode as swiftly as the swing that went towards it in 2010/2011.

Sadly, a quick glimpse at those classes who are sailing through the recession certainly suggests little has changed after the first year of the "democratic revolution".

In the first weeks of this Government, top mandarins were scurrying around the shop like startled earwigs dislodged from beneath a comfortable stone.

There is less of a sense of such terror amidst the higher mandarins now whilst other petted insiders are starting to feel as at home as they were during that Fianna Fail interregnum.

There was certainly no shortage of insiders wandering around on the opening night of the Fine Gael Ard Fheis and all of them were being petted.

Amidst the champagne glasses and cocktail dress-wearing waitresses (no, we are not making it up!), the predominant image was of tuxedo-wearing professionals and ballroom gowns.

In opposition Fine Gael might not have exactly promised to create a land fit for high street heroes but it came damn close. Now that it is in government, however, as we fought through the baby barristers, the miscellaneous consultants, the smiling professionals and builders, it looks as though Fine Gael's real objective is to create a different sort of land.

Last week a snorting, old-fashioned fire and brimstone style Irish Times editorial barely stopped short of suggesting the party should dress up in sack-cloth and ashes for its conference.

That was perhaps a tad begrudging, for even the most austere fundamentalists allow some drinking and dancing to take place on special occasions. But as the country accustoms itself to living in Fine Gael's world, the suspicion is also growing, and it is still just a suspicion, that the longer Fine Gael enjoys the comforts of the ministerial office, the more it is of the view that modest reform is work enough for any man.

One of the more intriguing features of the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis was the flight of the more obviously wealthy sections of society from an event that resembled something of a poor man's ball.

Happily, lest you feared they had got lost, these same souls turned up en masse at the glitzier Fine Gael version.

Lest they get too comfortable with these birds of passage, Fine Gael should, however, realise their new friends will migrate just as swiftly from this palace of dreams if the party's growing embrace of the politics of "we're in" alienates an increasingly equivocal electorate.

Sunday Independent

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