Thursday 14 November 2019

Fianna Fáil is in love with itself again, but what about voters?

TD Willie O’Dea with Fianna Fáil member Mary Byrne and vice-president Lisa Chambers at the RDS at the weekend
TD Willie O’Dea with Fianna Fáil member Mary Byrne and vice-president Lisa Chambers at the RDS at the weekend

Lise Hand

As proceedings began on Saturday morning, the two debate halls in the RDS had the feel of first Mass on the Sabbath, with their scattering of grey-haired devotees amid an expanse of empty seats.

Even a vote on a (non-binding) motion ruling out coalition with Fine Gael was passed by a mere handful of delegates.

It might have been the heavy rain or the early hour which saw the second day of Fianna Fáil's Ard Fheis get off to a slow start.

Or it may have been that four years after the party was hammered by the enraged electorate, it is now bob-bob-bobbing becalmed in the polls, still uncertain whether it's fatally holed below the waterline or making slow progress with the gentlest of zephyrs at its back.

For a political party seeking to mark out its own turf in an increasingly crowded field, public ennui can prove to be as big a threat to survival as public anger.

There weren't even any protesters in evidence outside the complex - in fact the only piece of displeasure was a printed notice pasted to a post at one the entrances, warning against a possible return of former minister Mary Hanafin to national politics. "The entire Dublin area has not even one FF TD. Keep it that way," it advised.

But by mid-morning, the place was filling up and the mood was picking up. During a debate on social issues, environment spokesman Barry Cowen got the first ovation of the day with a fiery speech on the social housing problem.

"In response, the Government as usual has been all tip and no iceberg," he thundered, before taking a dig at the two environment ministers Alan Kelly and Paudie Coffey as being "like two bald men fighting over a comb trying to claim credit for houses that don't exist".

A short while later it was standing-room only at the session on marriage equality, which provided arguments for and against next month's referendum that ranged from poignant to thoughtful to borderline bonkers.

Former minister Pat Carey gave a moving plea for a 'Yes' vote. "It took me all of 65-and-a-bit years to summon up the courage and the confidence to talk about my own sexuality," he said.

"I am sick, sore and tired of hearing republicanism being about bombs and bullets," he said.

"It is about liberty, equality, fraternity. We stand by each other. For goodness sake, let's all treat each other the same."

There were 10 speakers from the floor - coincidentally, the five advocating a 'No' vote were all men of a certain age.

One chap though became quite exercised over the intervention of various outside parties into the referendum campaign. "I don't take directions from Twitter or Ibec," he bellowed.

It also got a little lively on RTÉ's 'Saturday with Claire Byrne', when Clare TD Timmy Dooley and Limerick's Niall Collins had a go at the captain of Fianna Fáil's awkward squad, John McGuinness, who had accused the party of rushing out a raft of policies.

In truth, Fianna Fáil policies are a bit like 46A buses - the voter waits around for one for ages, then suddenly three arrive along together.

"I can tell you, there are a few people whose schoolbag has been pretty light coming back to the table with their homework," sniffed Timmy, before adding prudently, "John is a good friend of mine, don't get me wrong," as laughter erupted in the studio.

"John has been giving out about party leaders as long as Eamon Dunphy has been criticising football managers - it's a bit of a broken record at this stage," sniped Niall into the microphone.

But it was all outward harmony by the time that the party leader took to the stage for his televised speech.

The hall was crammed with 3,500 enthusiastic delegates who had been nicely warmed up by a spot of Shinner-bashing by Jack Chambers, a fresh-faced chap who ousted party stalwart councillor David McGuinness for the Dublin West nomination. "Republicanism is not about murder. It is not about kidnapping. It is not about burying people in bogs," he shouted to rowdy approval.

Meanwhile, councillor McGuinness was taking part in a Strictly Clonee charity dance event across town.

Micheál's speech got a great reception and a couple of ovations. About half-an-hour later, the RDS was almost deserted, the stands and bar dismantled.

Bob, bob, bob.

Irish Independent

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