After the apology-fest ard fheiseanna of the past three years, the party dried its tears and tried to switch attention to the tiers of an uneven society it claimed was being created by the Coalition.
Banking on voters being more concerned about their next electricity bill than the last election, Micheál Martin attempted to reposition the party left of centre — but as ever in Irish politics, this was no ushering in of a great battle of ideas, merely a continuation of the trench warfare of the austerity consensus.
Knowing that the reality of politics means that whichever party frames the narrative for the election campaign wins, Martin sought to combat the Coalition’s “don’t let Fianna Fáil wreck the recovery” rhetoric by posing his own question for voters: “Recovery is inevitable — the real issue is how do we deal with the cost-of-living crisis?”
It is a good question, but, unfortunately, Martin could not provide an answer. His vague promise to sort of, perhaps, do something to look at the way utilities are regulated was a very poor imitation of British Labour leader Ed Miliband’s costed €5bn policy to freeze all electricity bills for 20 months if allowed back into power.
Miliband was branded Red Ed by the right-wing press, but the most the Fianna Fáil leader could hope to aspire to here is ‘Maybe Martin’, as he ticks all the focus group fears without telling us how he would actually solve the problems.
It was a similar story with his promise to fight “privatisation” of the health service; presumably this means opposing universal health insurance but as Fianna Fáil does not have a coherent policy in this area, we must assume they want to continue with the current — to coin a phrase — two-tier system, which hardly make Martin’s One Nation message in any way cohesive.
But this is the new Fianna Fáil fightback: It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to look good. So, anyone young or female was immediately flung towards the podium in the vain attempt to stop proceedings looking like they were occurring in a large dayroom in an all-male old folks’ home.
Indeed, so young-looking were some of the candidates on display, you could be forgiven for thinking they had been collecting their Confirmation money while Bertie Ahern was refusing to say how much he got for his at the beginning of the tribunal saga in 2006.
So keen were the top brass to bathe in the innocence of youth over the weekend that at times it looked like the party might as well change its name to Foetus Fáil.
Women, on the other hand, were proving a particular problem. After admitting disappointment at producing an 83% male slate for the May elections, the leadership hardly improved matters by shunting a forum on women in politics to a pokey room on the fifth floor of the conference hotel.
“Maybe if they had given us a proper room downstairs we might have got more attention, or even a male TD or senator to turn up,” one speaker mused.
But the Fianna Fáil chief had one man on his mind, Environment Minister Phil Hogan. But Martin sent out conflicting signals with the accusation that the Government had embarked on a “good old fashioned gerrymander” with new local election boundaries.
While putting Big Phil firmly in the frame for providing slanted terms of reference to the boundary commission, those commissioners were slurred by association, as Martin’s claims made them appear at the very least politically naïve.
If Martin really thinks Hogan is acting like a Third World dictator, why not challenge him in court rather than effectively trying to deligitimise the elections on the eve of the campaign?
The only conclusion can be that it was a crude attempt to try and manage expectations ahead of a tough battle whose outcome will have a large influence on whether he remains leader through to the 2016 general election.
But politics is nothing if not unpredictable. As Martin prepared to take to the ard fheis stage under the banner “Recovery For All”, news filtered through of Patrick Nulty’s self-inflicted fall.
The looming byelection is now Fianna Fáil’s to lose after a surprisingly strong showing there in 2011, with a victory providing a major psychological boost and allowing it to claim an urban footprint again.
But the lingering impression from the ard fheis is that while Martin tried to put Fianna Fáil in the recovery position, he failed to breath new life into it.