IT was a big weekend for Fine Gael. Sixteen years since they last had an Ard Fheis in government and the first since they became the country's largest party. I went along to the Convention Centre in Dublin on Saturday to try and get a feel for what it was like for the organisation. As I walked down the quays the impact of the protesters against the household charge was evident. A garda advised me that I would have to enter via a back door. Immediately some problems were evident with the location of the venue, it was far easier to get close to the doors of this centre and to take over the streets than if you were out in the likes of City West.
I met many protesters just standing around laughing and generally making their point in a peaceful and harmless fashion as is their right. Indeed as I walked along the mood seemed quite good. That all changed as I approached the barriers. Like all protests there was a small element that were there to cause trouble. I witnessed some scuffles with Gardai as I tried to make my way through, I was jostled, shook and screamed at. Now it would not be the first time this happened to me so I wasn't too put out, but three elderly ladies were trying to get to the barrier at the same time, the Gardai were trying to pull them through while a group literally screamed in their faces and shouted abuse causing one lady to put her hands over her ears, visibly shaken.
The protest will not have bothered Enda Kenny of Phil Hogan too much, they hardly saw it. What it was achieving berating and abusing ordinary delegates is beyond me. These delegates are equally entitled to meet and attend political rallies or conferences in a free and unfettered manner a others are to protest.
Inside many of the delegates were talking about the protest. 'Let them at it' was one wildly held view, but several others suggested to me that the originally came not caring much for the Household charge and maybe even doubting Minister Hogan, but after the protest they wanted to shake his hand and offer him their unwavering support. If that was the effect then it was surely counter-productive.
Fine Gael did not want triumphalism, but the delegates were still in celebratory mood. They were enjoying their day out, the FG branded merchandise was flying off the shelves: 'The kids love it' one lady explained to me as she filled her bag. The first thing that struck me was the sentiment toward Enda Kenny. Words like 'inspirational' 'motivated' and 'honest' were used over and over again.
But there was a sense that the grassroots did not look up to him as some kind of powerful leader, or some Caesar like figure that they relied on for answers. No, it was more a feeling that he is a 'good guy', it is his work-rate and enthusiasm that is inspirational rather than a belief in his political ability. He is one of their own and he has done good and there is a protective feeling about him. You would not go down well if you criticised Enda in this company.
The old rivalries were to the fore. There was plenty of talk about Mahon and FF destroying the economy. They positively relished in such talk over cups of tea or a few pints. But the glee they felt was often accompanied by remarking that they were not too sure if they wanted to see the end of FF that much. A feeling that a reformed, but smaller FF, would be better than what might replace it.
The crowd was strong and committed, but it lacked the numbers of its Fianna Fail counterpart a few weeks ago. Given the difference in the Dail size of both parties it pointed to quite a few TD's who perhaps need to beef up their constituency machines and numbers to hold on to seats if the waters get a bit rougher. The venue looked well and was well organised, however, more than a few delegates complained about going up and down escalators all day and the difficulties in trying to find or meet people. Networking is a big part of such events and I did feel that the venue was not ideal for a political conference. Impressive though the structure is it lacked something due to so much division of activity between floors.
The Fine Gael grassroots were in good form though. As an outsider they were incredibly hospitable and friendly and indeed a credit to their organisation. As the time neared for Enda's big speech the atmosphere was building. The main hall took a while to fill up but when it did there was a real sense that these grassroots wanted something special. While FF chose to adopt the 'speaker alone in the round' format. FG were more traditional and had all those glittering prizes of TD's on the stage eager to show off the newly amassed Dail army.
We were treated to a short history of Fine Gael via a video (presumably for the benefit of any new members who were not aware of Michael Collins or the Cosgraves) the we had videos of new TD's and of Enda's first year in office. Then Charlie Flanagan stoked up the fires. FF took a pasting and talk of Mahon was enthusiastically greeted by the crowd most especially the accusation that the same people were still in control of FF today. Sinn Fein he said traded blood on their hands for ink on their hands. The crowd lapped it up. Even the independents were castigated.
Michael Noonan received a standing ovation when he rose to speak. The crowd were positively delighted when he spoke of thinking back to the state the country was in early 2011 compared to where it was now. In the press gallery not too many were altogether sure of the difference but the crowd knew. The warm up speeches could have been better or stronger but they did enough, the fire was stoked and Enda Kenny arrived in like a rock star to a tumultuous reception.
Enda started his speech brilliantly. The tone was perfect, the crowd was eager, he spoke of the problems the country faced and things were looking good. The crowd wanted more. That’s where things went a bit wrong though. For 20 minutes after that the speech read like a press release, devoid of hope, feeling or passion. The crowd politely applauded but increasingly eyes began to glance at watches and minds wandered, only clapping politely when a pause demanded such. Enda himself began to sound bored. Each sentence ending with the exact same tone and inflection. Clearly this section was not something he had written himself.
Finally, entering the last five minutes, Enda began to lift it and talk of vision again. He did give a decent ending but hardly enough to make up for the disappointment of the earlier segment. It was a lost opportunity, he was afraid of attacking too much, yet that is what the crowd wanted, he was afraid of sounding triumphal and ended up sounding disinterested.
Still the crowd were happy to be heading to the bar and greet old friends. They were feeling good and nothing could stop that. This is an organisation that clearly believes, at least, that it does have the answers. Walking out I met a lady struggling with the escalator and as we made our way down she told me it was a 'great day'. She suggested Enda should have 'let fly' and then asked me what part of FG I was from, when I said I was covering it for the media, she pulled back slightly, squared her shoulders and said 'Yeah ah, I thought Enda was brilliant, I’m delighted for him he's a great man, he did everything right.'
Whatever else Fine Gael maybe accused of they have waited a long time for their moment and now that it’s here they are not going to give it up easily. Whatever else befalls the party the loyalty of their grassroots is not open to question.
Johnny Fallon is a political consultant