Enda rides to rescue of his buddy Reilly
ALL the wagons were nicely scrubbed and painted and arranged in a neat, tight circle in the Burlington ballroom on Saturday night.
It was the 10th President's Dinner since Enda Kenny took over as leader of a Fine Gael party in severe disarray after an electoral drubbing in 2002, and the message going forth to the faithful over the plates of beef or salmon was simple: there is but one hymn sheet, and a harmonious party is singing tunefully from it.
The mood among the almost 900 FG folk packed into the capacious hall was determinedly upbeat. The better days to come in 2014 were dangled like a sparkling Shangri-La before the hopeful audience. There was a united front presented with such gusto, that all that was missing was a blast of 'Ireland's Call' from the front bench.
Of the overboard crew of Lucinda et al, there was no mention – except for an oblique reference by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald who spoke from the podium of "the FG values of resolution and discipline, of loyalty", with loud applause and cheers greeting the mention of the L-word (loyalty).
About halfway through his speech, Enda launched into a spirited defence of his beleaguered Health Minister who has been dodging so many incoming shells from all directions since the Budget, that one feared for his continued survival among the officer class.
But on the stage of the Burlo, Enda rode to the rescue of 'Reilly': "I don't do faint praise at all. I know Reilly for a long time, I know him as a man, as a citizen as a doctor, as a family doctor," he said. "I know him as somebody who is passionately interested, genuinely passionately interested, in changing a structure that has not delivered in the past to one that can deliver – to have a patient-centred, single-tier health system for the future."
Enda had even conjured up a colourful metaphor that would've done Fr Trendy proud for his under-fire friend. "In a way it's like trying to change the front wheel of an artic truck driving to Cork – it's not easy to do this while you're at the wheel," he told the bemused crowd (none of whom dared crack wise about having convoys of trolleys in hospital corridors).
And naturally there was much talk from the Taoiseach about the fabled date, December 15, when the troika saddles up and leave town.
"We will publish alongside the bailout exit in December, a new medium-term economic strategy, and that new economic plan will be based on enterprise and on job opportunities, rather than on speculation," he declared.
"When we exit, we're pulling up the shutters behind us and we're not going back to that culture of incompetence, of speculation, of greed, of profligacy."
There was a sense of optimism in the room, which was filled with ministers, including Michael Noonan, Simon Coveney, Phil Hogan and James Reilly, TDs and senators.
Alas, the only senior member of Cabinet to take to the dance-floor was the indefatigable Finance Minister, who busted some impressively slick moves with Senator Catherine Noone.
But of course an event like the President's Dinner is a bit of political showbiz, an opportunity for a bit of razzmatazz. For behind the scenes, the mood music between the coalition partners is a trifle discordant of late since the Tanaiste turned up the heat on FG to agree to a referendum on same sex marriage.
Now the Taoiseach would probably opt to poke out his own eye with a sharp stick rather than run yet another referendum after the people gave his Seanad wheeze the old heave-ho last month. But Labour is clamouring for a date, and when Enda was asked at a media doorstep interview en route to the ballroom when he would state his and his party's position on the matter, his reply was brief.
"Tuesday," was all he said.
Uh-oh. It looks as if Labour isn't going to bail him out of this one.