Monday 16 September 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Two party dinners, and two very different flavours on the menu'

There is a stark difference in approach and presentation between FF and FG, writes Philip Ryan

Canvasser: Micheal Martin likes to get out there and judge the nation’s mood. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Canvasser: Micheal Martin likes to get out there and judge the nation’s mood. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A few days before the Fine Gael presidential dinner on October 6, two messages from the party's headquarters were sent to ministers. Firstly, the ministers were told they all had to wear something blue for the occasion - a dress, tie, shirt or even a rosette.

Anything would do for the Fine Gael chiefs who seem to be proud of the origin of the party's ''blue shirts" nickname.

Secondly, they were told to congregate outside Fitzwilliam Hall of what is now called the Clayton Hotel Burlington Road before entering the venue for the annual fundraising dinner.

"For those of you attending the presidential dinner on October 6, An Taoiseach has requested that you all wait with him at the back of the room while he is being introduced," the party's head of fundraising wrote.

"He would like you all to walk through the room together as a team. He will then proceed to the stage as you take your seat. Please ensure you have your table number/location beforehand," the letter added.

On the night, Fine Gael chairman Gerry O'Connell made rousing calls for party donations before introducing the Taoiseach and his ministerial team.

With all and sundry present, ministers lined up behind Leo Varadkar and marched into the dining hall draped in their blue finery. Eoin O'Duffy would have been impressed by the performance.

Before Varadkar's after- dinner speech, a professionally produced video was broadcast on large screens at the top of the room. Health Minister Simon Harris performed the warm-up routine during which he ribbed his ministerial colleagues over various scrapes they were involved in. It went down well. The Taoiseach's speech was a greatest hits of Fine Gael's time in power.

On the tables, even those where journalists were sitting, envelopes for donations were scattered. Obviously, none of the journalists donated and why the envelopes were even there is unclear. Although given the number of journalists Fine Gael has hired of late, maybe they are having difficulty determining who works for them and who doesn't.

After dinner, Varadkar pressed the flesh with a few party members but didn't work the room in the way his predecessor Enda Kenny might have done. He headed home from the party social event relatively early but the Government was announcing the Budget in a couple of days.

Fast forward a few weeks later to last Saturday evening in the same venue. This time it was Fianna Fail's turn to host its annual fundraising dinner. There were far fewer bells and whistles, to say the least.

At around 8.30pm, Fianna Fail general secretary Sean Dorgan took to the stage and briefly announced the arrival of party leader Micheal Martin.

Before being introduced, Martin stood at the back of the hall and fixed his tie. On hearing his name, he strolled into the room to applause and took his seat.

The Ireland versus New Zealand game had distracted a substantial cohort of the attendees, so it was decided to delay the speeches until after Joe Schmidt's team's historic victory over the All Blacks across the road in the Aviva Stadium.

When the time came, Fianna Fail deputy leader Dara Calleary did the warm-up routine, during which he had a few jibes at the Fine Gael lads - most pointedly at Varadkar and Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy.

Martin's speech also focused on Fine Gael. It was written on the first full day of Fine Gael's ard fheis in the Citywest Hotel, where ministers had lined up to have pops at their minority government partners. Once dessert was served, Martin mingled with the guests, going from table to table with one of his handlers like a newly married husband and wife on their wedding day. He even popped over to say hello to the journalists.

Even though the two events were held in the same venue and for the same reason, the distinct differences of the two parties were on full display.

There was a more authentic atmosphere at the Fianna Fail dinner. You could have been at a fundraiser for a local GAA team in Co Westmeath or the wedding of a couple from a west Co Mayo village.

The Fine Gael night out was more like the Christmas party of one of the top Dublin accountancy firms or a 'business person of year' awards ceremony. Maybe it was the pending budget giveaway or the strong public opinion poll findings. Maybe it was the strut of power. Either way, there was an air of pomposity around the venue.

When the country does finally go to the polls - and the sooner the better, at this stage - these will be the options on the menu. A side dish (or coalition partner) of Sinn Fein will also be available but essentially the choices are the razzle dazzle of Fine Gael's low-tax policies or Fianna Fail's earnest dedication to improving public services.

Your opinion of Leo Varadkar will probably be formed by a minute-long video you might have watched on your Facebook or Twitter feed. We've all seen videos of the Taoiseach looking authoritative, standing in front of a helicopter or statesmanlike posing beside a foreign dignitary.

An hour before his live televised ard fheis speech last weekend, the Taoiseach released an online video announcing he would be making a live televised speech.

With Micheal Martin, you're more likely to find him knocking on your front door before dinner time than popping up on your social media account. Martin seems to be on his second lap of canvassing the country.

Most evenings, when he is in Dublin, he will head off into the suburbs or the city centre for a quick canvass. Knock on a few doors, gauge a few opinions on the ills of the world and head home to bed.

Returning Fianna Fail to the party's former glory in the capital is a key goal for Martin in the next election. Progress has been made in recent elections but there is far more work to be done and the polls show that Fine Gael is by far the more popular party among city folk.

Martin shows up all over the country for evening canvasses or local party events where he engages with local members and, more importantly as far as he's concerned, non-party members.

Martin's political shtick is that he figures he can read the mood of the nation. He says he looks beyond the subscription- paying Fianna Fail members and seeks to understand the electorate at large. It has been working for him, too. He certainly made the right call on the 2016 General Election and the abortion referendum, despite internal resistance.

Varadkar doesn't do much canvassing, especially now he has a country to run. The doors in his constituency are knocked on by his local branch members and he shows up to the odd meeting when he can.

When he travels the country, he is normally chauffeured between events where he poses for photographs and shakes a couple of hands. Enda Kenny liked to fit in a canvass when he could and often popped down Grafton Street for a coffee, or Baggot Street, so he could meet the public. Bertie Ahern also made sure he kept his ear to the streets.

It's not that Varadkar doesn't listen to anyone. In fact, his leadership style involves surveying opinions before making decisions. He's open to debate on decisions and will often take on board opposing views. But does he meet enough ordinary people?

In his televised ard fheis speech, Varadkar mentioned some "real people" - Lorraine, Kevin and Tom - who asked him questions about the state of the country. It was very staged and all those asking questions clearly had links to Fine Gael.

Varadkar used to face accusations of being aloof, but he has managed to shake off that image and is now well capable of working a room if he wants. Martin can turn on the charm when he needs to but can be spiky when things are not going his way.

Varadkar and Martin cannot be judged on their ability to throw a party or how they mingle with punters at an event. However, there is a clear difference in the two distinct products which the two men offer.

If pomp, ceremony, social media videos and tax cuts are your thing, then Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael is probably a good choice. 
If you yearn for the good old days of politicians in anoraks knocking on your door looking for your vote and promising they will improve the local bus service, then Micheal Martin is your man.

Sunday Independent

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