Joycean Joan and almost-new Alex treat late-arriving Labour faithful to a scoreless draw
UH-oh. It was all looking a bit ominous in the room in the Clayton Hotel in Galway. It was 10 minutes before the next round of the Labour roadshow was due to kick-off, and there were approximately three men in the hall. There wasn't even a dog on a string in sight.
A week ago the Labour Party membership were swinging from the lightbulbs in the Radisson Hotel in the Dublin Airport at the first of this series of hustings, but a week can be a very very long time in politics. (Just ask outgoing Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore).
Where was everybody? Were they all down in Spiddal and Salthill, soaking up the glorious sunshine on the western seaboard?
Or were they all crammed into bars, awaiting the kick-off of Iran vs Nigeria? For that matter, what political party is crazy enough to hold events during the World Cup?
Whose cockamamie idea was that? Or perhaps – Galway being an arty sort of city – they were all dressed up in boaters and bowlers, tucking into nutty gizzards in honour of Bloomsday.
Outside the room, one local staffer was unperturbed. "They're all on Galway time," he explained.
And sure enough, as the minutes ticked down to 7.30pm, the rows of empty seats miraculously filled up. It wasn't packed to the doors, but given all the competition vying for the attention of the demoralised Labour faithful, it was a respectable turn-out.
But Ulysses got a trot out, all the same. Beginning her speech, Joan Burton gave a boater-tip to James Joyce (in truth the Social Protection Minister has been known to channel Molly Bloom's lengthy stream of conscious soliloquies when confronted with a microphone).
But she chose to borrow from another author.
"You will forgive me if I paraphrase another literary giant, Mark Twain, in saying that rumours of our demise are greatly exaggerated," she said. And then she made her pitch for putting a woman in charge of the party. "I recall a sense of depression after one election that Labour had failed to elect a single woman TD.
"With three years, we had helped elect Ireland's first woman President and had a greater number of women TDs than any other party," she declared.
"The lesson is simple – a party can change when survival demands change and circumstances permit it," she added, pointedly.
Her rival for the top job, junior health minister Alex White was in a far more serious mood. He has quite a bit of ground to cover to catch up with Joan, and chose Obama's beloved Change riff.
"We need change – change that starts on July 4 when a new leader takes up office," he declared, before sliding in a subtle needle.
"The question for our party now is whether to pass the baton to the next most senior person in the current leadership, or to shift gear altogether and choose someone who is relatively fresh, who will present a new and different image to the electorate and who has the energy and commitment for a project of renewal," he offered.
But before Joan and and the man now called Relatively Fresh Alex squared up, the warm-up quartet of deputy wannabes lined up for a go on the podium.
Remarkably, despite the fact that there are four of them – junior ministers Sean Sherlock and Alan Kelly and backbench TDs Ciara Conway and Michael McCarthy – in a scrap for the post of second-in-command, not one of them got stuck into the other. No snide comments or side-swipes.
The four took it in turn to make their opening pitches, before the floor was opened to the party members.
After the bruising experience of the local elections, it was clear that the electoral beating still smarts.
One woman stood up. "The election gave you a kick in the teeth, not a slap on the wrists," she stated. "There is a complete sway against you - what are Labour's core values? The electorate don't know".
On the stage, the four offered their mea culpas.
It was all very polite and a bit pedestrian. Remarkably, despite the lack of any fireworks, nobody snuck off to the bar to watch the football.
To misquote another literary giant, Sam Beckett: "The sun set, having no alternative, on the nothing new".