Bland Labour Party bash eschews ructions for that other R-word – recovery
Published 17/02/2014 | 02:30
THE group of anti-pylon protesters outside the Johnstown House Hotel in Enfield was small, but perfectly vocal. Waving professional-looking banners and indignant fists, they provided a noisy welcome committee for the leaders and followers of Labour as they arrived for their party conference.
And having seen all the arrivals safely onto the premises, the protesters departed. It was a far cry (in every sense of the expression) from the rambunctious ri-ra in Galway two years ago when protesters scuffled with gardai after breaking through the barricades surrounding Labour's conference venue in NUIG.
Since then, the junior coalition partners have ensured there's no chance that the delegates will come eyeball-to-eyeball with revolting peasants. And so this year's get-together was protected by various steel rings of security which included handy-looking lads sporting suits and earpieces wandering about the corridors, and everyone sporting fancy-dan electronic badges for access to the conference area.
But, as it transpired, one would see more ructions in a chip shop after closing time, with members of the Irish women's rugby team and the Donegal football team mingling peacefully, albeit bemusedly, with the politicians.
The Labour Party, which for a couple of years now has endured a sustained kicking in opinion polls, was determined to show that it's completed that sharp-angled manoeuvre (Turned A Corner) and that red tails are rising and the party leader Eamon and his deputy Joan are best friends forever.
Around 100 days out from the local and European elections, Labour were eager to promote their candidates, particularly the trio of women Euro candidates, Emer Costello, Phil Prendergast and Lorraine Higgins, and also the notion that the party wasn't in for a hammering on election day in May.
However, Joan Burton let the sisterhood side down a little when she appeared to forget Lorraine's name in the course of a radio interview on Claire Byrne's show during the conference, and then later she forgot to namecheck Phil as a candidate during a media doorstep – even though the clearly morto Ireland South MEP was standing slap-bang next to her.
"An oversight," explained one of the minister's team afterwards.
No – this was all about the R-word (no, not Recession, sillies, but the far more cheery Recovery word, which was invoked no less than 19 times during Eamon Gilmore's keynote address at the close of the conference).
So when it came to that other rumoured R-word (Ructions) between the Coalition over thorny topics such as the provision of universal health care and the murky mystery of GSOC, the party adopted the popular "nothing-to-see-here-please-move-along" tactic beloved of both sets of Boys in Blue (the gardai and Fine Gael).
But there was a sense that the complicated barney involving the Justice Minister, the Garda Commissioner and the Garda Ombudsman over the bugging claims was ever-present in the background of the Labour conference.
"God only knows what else is set to crawl out from the woodwork on the bugging thing. For a small fella, Alan Shatter does a great impression of a bull in a tea-shop," said one Labour backbencher (quietly).
Though, as always when the political going gets rough, the black-humoured jokers get going. Delegates inside the bar area at lunchtime who were surfing for a wi-fi signal on their phones were startled to see the name of one particular network on offer called 'Garda Mobile Surveillance'.
"It's just someone messing," reckoned one party insider, doubt writ large across his face.
It was one of the few arresting moments of the day. During the afternoon various events took place, such as ministerial workshops and campaign training sessions for the attendees among the 169 candidates for the local elections who have been selected to date by Labour.
At one of the training sessions, one veteran of knocking on doors had high praise for one long-serving party member, Pat Rabbitte. The Communications Minister was "a great man" out on the canvass, especially when rude voters materialised. "When he met a bollox, he'd tell him that he's being a bollox," he explained admiringly.
Meanwhile in a ministerial workshop, a bullish Brendan Howlin was giving his audience of delegates and local candidates a report on the progress of public reform. Earlier he had dismissed reports that he and James Reilly were at loggerheads – "on a personal level, we get on extremely well," he asserted.
While insisting he hadn't fallen out with his Fine Gael colleague, Brendan was eager to fly his Labour colours, declaring that when it came to reform, "the most resistant group I have come across are the most privileged. There is a sense of entitlement in some cohorts, which is absolutely extraordinary".
Alas, he declined to name names. "I'll have to wait to write me book," he joked, adding that he'd better write his before Joan Burton pens her memoirs.
Well, it's unlikely that either minister will devote too many paragraphs to this particularly unmemorable conference.
Even Eamon Gilmore's live televised speech went off without either a hitch or a bombshell.
The Irish people had been "to hell and back" he told the room, and warned the nation against "going back to the bad old days when Ireland was run by a different troika – a troika of bankers, developers and Fianna Fail".
At the end of his address, the troika of Emer, Lorraine and Phil rushed to his side – from Gilmore Gale to Gilmore Gals, one supposes. A beaming Eamon hoisted a V-sign to the crowd.
V for Victory, presumably. Or was it a secret coded message to his pal Enda?
For one can't be too careful these days. God knows who's listening in.