Sobering thoughts as parties gather for think-ins
John Drennan considers the state of our Government and Opposition at the end of a long, hot summer
The autumn party gathering is a curious political patchwork quilt of a think-in, a drink-in and a confidence-building event that often degenerates into a bitching exercise.
Despite ongoing attempts to invite a scattering of intellectuals to take the bare look off things, like the summer school or thinking itself for that matter, the party think-in has declined in status.
One reason may be that too often our think-in has turned into a lock-in and on one famous occasion, a political death trap.
Sadly, after excesses like the brave attempt in the Ardilaun, where Fianna Fail under Cowen literally tried to refloat the depressed domestic economy and the vignette where one future Fianna Fail grandee snarled "there goes the **** stifling my career'' when Bertie trotted in, it's a lot quieter in the land of King Enda.
Still, like that wedding you are obliged to go to, the media and the TDs will still all turn up to gawk curiously at the state of the respective parties.
So after a long but alas not at all silent summer, what is the state of our political parties?
LABOUR'S LOVE LOST IN LIMBO
Labour might have managed to avoid the Carton House debacle of last year's 'think in' where the spectacle of Pat Rabbitte gambolling beside woodland nymphs (they were, we stress, statues!) inspired references to the old satirical song about how "the working class can kiss my ass, I've got the foreman's job at last". That, however, is as positive as it gets though for whilst Labour is on the centre of the political stage it is not there in any sort of good way.
Instead, there is more than a touch of the battle of Stalingrad surrounding Eamon Gilmore's attempt to get on to the anti-austerity bandwagon.
In the wake of Joan Burton's imitation of Diana at the Taj Mahal, all eyes in party conference season will definitely be on the curious relationship between the Invisible Tanaiste and his all too visible deputy leader.
The far more serious question the party must answer, though, is whether the Labour sick beast is already fatally detached from the herd?
As fear gathers in debilitating little pools and everyone tries to ignore the ghost of the Greens hovering over the Labour Party rooms, the hierarchy is clinging to a number of variants of hope.
In particular, it is praying that the deep roots which Labour put down over a century mean a Green Party-style wipeout is impossible.
But, is a Labour Party, whose political identity for the citizens is one of "ah Labour, the party that broke your promises", being too optimistic?
The Greens may represent too stark a precedent to be totally accurate but to paraphrase the late Paidi O Se, the distressed Irish electorate is a rough sort of beast.
Just ask Fianna Fail.
If Labour is putting the house on history crossed with charity to save them, then they may put the keys in the political letterbox.
So is there a way to save Project Labour?
Some have suggested a Cabinet reshuffle might erase the vitriolic single sentence image of "ah Labour, the party that broke your promises".
A reshuffle might also allow Eamon Gilmore to soften the Grumpy Old Men in Grey image that is afflicting Labour with something that is easier on the eye.
The problem for Eamon, though, is that if he takes the axe to the rest of the ancien regime, the first question that will be asked is why you aren't including yourself, Eamon?
Some will argue that the big problem which Labour, and Fine Gael for that matter, face is that Labour needs Fine Gael to cut them a break to allow Labour a bigger imprint in government.
Such charity, however, is simply not present in the Fine Gael DNA for whilst John Bruton behaved himself, it took a lot of smacks on the nose from Dick Spring to bring out the FG submissive gene.
For the most part though, when it comes to partnership, Fine Gael is more like the dog that gets loose amongst the sheep.
Once they get a taste for blood, or Gilmore, there's no stopping them until the farmer arrives into the field with the shotgun.
If there is one consolation for Labour, it will lie in the fact that like a set of armies who have advanced too far beyond their supply base, the current advance position of SF and FF is soft and can be easily beaten back.
Ultimately, if Labour is to survive, it must erase the terrible "ah, Labour, the party that broke your promises" sentence from Ireland's political narrative.
But, for this to happen the party must be far more proactive than the current scenario where the Beta males of Labour say, 'look at the terrible things those FG thugs are trying to do'.
The problem with such an effeminate narrative is that no amount of negatives, no matter how you combine them, will ever create a positive.
Intriguingly, this has been recognised by the party backbenchers who are losing patience with the surrendered wives' status of a hierarchy that is prepared to kill Labour with respectability in order to get a pat on the head from Fine Gael.
The change has been signalled by the rise of the 'not a red cent more in austerity' group of Labour backbenchers who realise that for Labour to survive, it has to go to war with its political 'partner' on austerity, jobs and growth.
In becoming pro-active, though, Labour must also avoid deadly sins like its ongoing love affair with the notion of increasing income tax for the wealthy.
Paddy does not like tax increases of any sort, even for billionaires because he rightly fears it will trickle down to him.
Ultimately, the best lesson that the party might learn is the embrace by King Enda of the virtue of resilience.
If Labour is to survive, it must stick it out and pray that a belated economic recovery will allow it to keep its promises.
After all, if the voters have forgiven FF after two years, then two progressive budgets might mean that even Labour could be saved.
FINE GAEL PURRING IN PORTLAOISE
In the past, Fine Gael may have been like that sack of Kilkenny cats that fought until only the tail was left. Now they resemble a plump house cat purring in the sun beside the kitchen window. The party may have lost a few front teeth over that abortion thing but in the view of Enda Kenny, those molars were nearly better out, for they were always giving him grief.
Despite a tricky Budget and a Seanad referendum which the 'Dear Leader' would be better off losing, for now, the sun shines in the court of King Enda every day. Manners are being put on those who have ever dared to cheek the sun king and such is the zesty air of confidence surrounding the party that some already dare to whisper of a Fine Gael drive for single-party government.
But, could FG be swaying dangerously towards the territories of pride coming before a fall? In particular, it had better watch the state of its Labour partner lest the latter's travails collapse the entire house of cards whilst rogue cards such as the banks and mortgage arrears may derail the great dream of a FG/SF coalition for 2016 and after that, President Enda for the Park.
FIANNA FAIL PERIPHERAL IN WATERFORD
Uneasy indeed is the head of the party leader who must wear the Opposition crown. Since 2011, the fate of FF has mirrored that of the economy. For the first year after the election, mere survival was a triumph. In fairness, a leader, born to apologise, has delivered this in spades. However, just like the economy, stability has not delivered satisfaction. Instead, the gathering murmurs of discontent suggest some within the party are setting their ambitions higher than surviving and apologising.
The rebellious ones might be wise to stay behind the wainscoting for another while for, like the economy, there is uncertainty over the actual strength of the FF recovery. In particular, the rise of Sinn Fein means that leader Micheal Martin is starting to feel the fire heating up beneath his feet. Micheal's troops would also be wise to be somewhat less querulous for, when it comes to taking on the FG Armada, FF is still critically short on ammunition, troops and credibility. It can only pray that more of all three will come if the party singes Enda's beard next year.
SINN FEIN STANDING OUT FROM THE PACK
As is increasingly typical of Sinn Fain, the party got in ahead of the pack and held its conference first. This wise decision was not the only example of how swiftly the former slow learners of Irish politics are learning to play the political game.
Outside of a cunning furore about excessive drinking in the Dail Bar during the abortion debate (chance would be a fine thing), our Sinn Fein Scientologists ensured their conference was dominated by the arrival of Chris Andrews.
Some cruel soul subsequently noted the move of Chris was unique in increasing the collective IQ of both parties. However, a SF party desperately seeking respectability will always be more than pleased to bring in a pedigree spaniel like Chris if it diverts attention from Jean McConville and all that went before.
INVISIBLE INDEPENDENTS; NOT QUITE
Normally the party 'drink-in' season is a period in which our somewhat flamboyant independent classes are invisible. Somewhat more attention on this occasion has been placed on our Invisible Independents. In particular, interest is being centred on Lucinda and how she might look at Stephen Donnelly, Shane Ross, Roisin Shortall and Colm Keaveney. The meeting of the Fine Gael Independent party that is not a party in Buswells was low profile enough on this occasion. But will that be the case next year?