Friday 24 November 2017

Long-shot Enda has victory in sight as biggest hurdle looms

Enda had barely uttered the final word of his keynote address when the ranks of parliamentary colleagues and party candidates seated behind him leapt out of their seats.

Like a herd of spooked cattle they stampeded to the podium to encircle their party leader for the last few precious minutes that his face -- and consequently theirs too -- was being beamed live via RTE to the nation on Saturday night.

The wiry but nippy former GAA president and wannabe MEP Sean Kelly was first out of the traps, closely followed by the party's great hope for the Dublin Central by-election, Senator Paschal Donohoe, who almost forgot to stop running and narrowly avoided becoming the first Irish politician to crowd surf at an ard fheis. And hot on their heels was sitting MEP Mairead McGuinness who has never met a spotlight she didn't like.

There was something quite Fianna Failesque about their enthusiasm as they clustered about their leader and cheered and waved animatedly into the cameras (though it was possibly to differentiate themselves from David Davin Power's infamous doughnut of zombies from the Fianna Fail ard fheis five weeks' earlier).

Some would see the performance as a robust display of loyalty to Enda Kenny by the parliamentary party; cynics could view it as a case of Fine Gael doth protest too much over questions raised about the ability of the leader to lead them into government.

But there had been no visible signs of any tension over the course of the weekend's ard fheis in Citywest. No muted rasp of long knives leaving scabbards, no more shouting matches -- Enda and his fiery deputy, Lucinda Creighton had even kissed and made up on the platform on Friday night.

And just in case there were any lingering doubts about party unity, Michael Ring was deployed onstage shortly before Enda's address to rally the troops.

Any time the Mayo man with the leather lungs stands up in the Dail, a butterfly in Brazil plummets to earth. And an enthusiastic Michael soon dialled up the decibels.

"There's a great buzz around the hall," he began. "I smell power!" he declared, before delivering a few kicks to the Government. "They're here too long. They're dreary, they're weary and it's time to move them on!" he roared with relish.

Michael was right -- there was a buzz in the hall and an upbeat mood on the stage. Although comedy and party conferences can be a dodgy mix (as Fine Gael know all too well when they unleashed Twink on an unsuspecting crowd in 1991), they did risk showing a mischievous video poking fun at various Fianna Fail comedy turns, such as the Portraitgate farce and Mary Coughlan mis-speaks.

Mairead McGuinness tried a little stand-up routine of her own, in an effort to extract revenge on her fellow outgoing MEP Avril Doyle, who unleashed a zinger during the selection convention for new Euro candidate, the youthful John Paul Phelan, when the doughty Wexford woman pointed out that she "was old enough to be his mother", adding slyly, "And so are you, Mairead".

So Mairead, who's running for Europe again in June, brandished a t-shirt that read, 'Vote No 1 for John Paul's Mammy'. But a dignified Avril chose not to participate in any tomfoolery.

Generally Fine Gael delegates are a less exuberant bunch than the more rambunctious troops of the Soldiers of Destiny. Whereas five weeks ago in Citywest the hotel heaved with Fianna Fail party faithful who were outwardly bullish despite the dreadful opinion polls and loudly putting a brave face on things, the Fine Gael followers are a more decorous bunch, not much given to spontaneous outbursts of shape-throwing.

But on Saturday night in the conference hall, there was an extra ebullience in the air. Enda's keynote address was interrupted 41 times for applause and cheers, which is positively rowdy by Fine Gael's more sedate standards.

And Enda -- whose oratorical skills wouldn't be giving Barack Obama any sleepless nights -- pitched his well-crafted speech carefully. It wasn't so much a leader's address as an election campaign manifesto.

"The Fine Gael plan is not about jobs for the boys, but jobs for the people," he declared to hearty approval. He promised that "one of my first acts as Taoiseach will be to reduce the number of junior ministers from 20 down to 12".

The speech went down mightily in the hall, but Enda still has to convince a wider audience that he can run the country.

He finished his address with a bit of Obamarama -- "My call to the Irish people is different. It's not just 'Yes we can, but 'Yes we will'," he shouted in conclusion as his troops sprang into action behind him.

But some of the biggest cheers of the weekend emanated from the hotel's bar as the hordes packed in to watch the Grand National at Aintree on Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps the more superstitious among the Blueshirts took note that a rank outsider -- 100/1 shot Mon Mome, described in one pre-race form guide as "lacking stamina", advising punters to "look elsewhere for a winner" -- confounded the experts and took the prize.

With a draconian Budget to come this week, the odds on an early political Big Race are beginning to shorten. The runners and riders are lining up, a mixture of favourites and long shots. And it won't take long to find out if this Budget turns out to be the two Brians' Beecher's Brook.

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