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Lise Hand: No backslapping or high jinks - humility is watchword of day

Two winsome young ladies in fetching black mini-dresses and vertiginous stilettos were greeting all the arrivals at the National Convention Centre last night for the opening session of the 76th Fine Gael Ard Fheis.

And by golly the delegates were dressed up to the nines. In fairness, it has been a decade- and-a-half since they've had a Taoiseach to celebrate and a greatly increased parliamentary party to admire, but this seemed a little over-the-top altogether.

But upon closer inspection it turned out that the convention centre was hosting two gigs last night -- and all the well-heeled party people were heading into a glitzy digital-awards bash.

Anyway, if any Fine Gael member had attempted to sashay triumphantly into the venue in ostentatiously celebratory clothing, they most likely would've been sent straight back home to change into something more sackcloth-and-ashes style.

For the watchword of this Ard Fheis is Humility, and no mistake about it. Smarting from the humiliating farce of Stargate just over a month ago when a photo-opp featuring a gang of gleeful blueshirts waving about self-awarded gold stars for all their wonderful work was promptly cancelled after Pat Rabbitte poured buckets of scorn all over it on the airwaves.

And so even though about 4,000 delighted members of the Fine Gael family are due to do a victory lap around the Ard Fheis this weekend, both politicians and delegates were warned not to be doing cartwheels in the convention centre, or to display any hint of hubris or scintilla of self-regard. And for sure Enda wouldn't be body-surfing the delirious mob to get to the stage for his opening address.

Instead the deputies and senators trickled in quietly in the late afternoon, collecting the various badges and wristbands which inevitably materialise as soon as a party gets into government. "I've cattle at home with less identification on them," declared Wexford TD and farmer Michael Darcy after he'd queued up at the Ryanair-style check-in booths in the foyer.

Certainly the strict security wasn't really necessary yesterday. A couple of protests were expected outside the venue and lines of crash barriers and a platoon of boys in blue were in evidence, but in the end less than 20 protesters showed up.

The biggest mob scene took place inside the door when the moving target of the moment, the Environment Minister showed up. He was doomed to get no peace; he had been happily imbibing a pre-Ard Fheis drink in The Ferryman pub across the river from the convention centre when he was buttonholed by a few protesters who had spotted him (at six feet five, he doesn't exactly blend in with the crowd). But it was an amicable encounter, with no flying beer-glasses.

Big Phil arrived with Senator Imelda Henry, and the pair were immediately engulfed by a posse of press, eager to elicit his views on how the Household Charge Tax Countdown is proceeding.

"The momentum is with the household charge," he insisted. "I think most people want to comply with the law," he reckoned. Perhaps a Countdown Clock to midnight tonight should be set up in his nearby department in the Customs House, with a live feed into the Ard Fheis, as the numbers climb, or don't climb. Just to add to the frisson of fear.

But not everyone can do low-key and play nice. And one of those people is the Justice Minister. He just can't help himself from having a go as the mood takes him; Alan Shatter rarely emanates peaceful vibes.

And everyone got a lash. "I don't believe half the nation is lying in bed at 12 midnight having pillow-fights over whether or not to pay the household charge," he sniffed.

And by golly he has no time for malcontents who have had the temerity to organise a protest outside the Ard Fheis venue tomorrow. "Sinn Fein and other promised protesters should get a life," he reckoned.

Nice one, Alan. That opinion should ensure a Cecil B de Mille-sized horde will be merrily storming the doors later on today.

The Taoiseach turned up just before 7.30pm, and immediately found himself in a woman-shaped doughnut of colleagues -- Minister Frances Fitzgerald, Mary Mitchell O'Connor and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and senator Imelda Henry.

But he was keeping quiet until he got to the stage -- or perhaps he was just conserving his energy, given that he's clocked up more air-miles of late than Angelina Jolie.

Even his arrival into the auditorium for his address was muted. The hall was about half-full, and Enda was greeted with warm applause, but no cheering or roaring from the crowd, for fear that the fire-hoses would be turned on them by the vigilant Fun Police.

And Enda was also in Humble mode. "We have made a solid start but we have a long way to go," was the closest he strayed towards trumpet-blowing.

And he finished with this sentiment: "I wish you all a successful and enjoyable weekend -- but don't overdo it," he advised.

God help anyone who tries to smuggle in a vuvuzela to accompany tonight's keynote speech. It'll be straight to jail, along with all those household-charge dodgers.

Irish Independent