Never having seen the TV programme, I wasn’t sure whether it was crime or sci fi or worse.
The suggestion was that party members who were going to run for their local councils would go up on stage, make a one-minute speech, and me, Noel Whelan and Donal Geoghegan, the Green Party general secretary, would rate them from winner to ultimate loser.
At that point I balked, reluctant to humiliate the unfortunate selected as the worst, Cowell-style. I got a brownie point from the organiser for balking, but it turned out that no ritual humiliation had ever been intended.
We were to pick the top three, say a few words and buzz off. Although, they hastened to add, we’d be more than welcome to stay for the subsequent craic.
So I headed for Wexford on Saturday afternoon, leaving enough time to get good and lost on the way, because I always do. I can get lost going to the bathroom and regularly find myself in the garage, wondering why I’m there.
On the journey to the sunny south-east, I made one error, which was visiting Enniscorthy en route. The man in my life, who acts as a mobile phone air traffic controller making sure I don’t end up in Perth, seemed to regard going through Enniscorthy as a mortal sin. Since my grandfather hailed from Enniscorthy, I took this amiss.
I did, nevertheless, hit Wexford in daylight and started to search for White’s Hotel. This took an hour and a half. Wexford’s streetscape has been laid out by someone of a twisted nature who must sit in a high window somewhere along one of the winding one-way routes and laugh himself sick at cars appearing for the eighth time, circling with increasing desperation as they try to find White’s. The first time I found myself in front of it, I was so distracted by seeing David Davin-Power talking authoritatively to a camera on the footpath, I drove past the hotel having missed the car park entirely and had to do yet another full circuit of the town before I could get back to it.
They had us three judges lined up behind a table, in the front row of the audience, and while Deirdre de Búrca summed up the speakers from the previous session, we were handed clip-boards with printed forms on which we were to rate each of the 46 speakers.
We were to give them marks and comments on their topic, their presentation skills, their engagement with the audience and their eye contact, plus we could make further comments on what we particularly liked about them and what they might usefully improve on. Each speaker would get our comments — all three sheets of them — in an envelope to which nobody else had access.
Clever idea — allowing them to introduce themselves to their colleagues, get a bit of advice while using the first night of the conference for something more than dreary motions.
The chairperson of the session, deputy leader of the party Mary White, told everybody that the first prize was a seat behind the party leader, John Gormley, during his TV address.
No offence to John Gormley, but if I had to impress 600 people in one minute, I’d be hoping for a week at a spa as a prize rather than a seat behind the Minister for the Environment. But to each his own. At least the winner would be seen by his or her constituents in wide shots during the televised bit of the gig.
Of course, when the first person started to speak, I was only getting used to her when I realised she was finished and I hadn’t made either notes or done my markings. Noel Whelan, who had gone to work the moment she opened her mouth, looked smug as I scrambled to catch up with him.
Fair dues to them, they mostly kept within their sixty seconds, with the exception of one small woman who was so undeterred by Mary White’s increasingly irritated tinging of her pen against her waterglass, I thought Mary was going to go over to the podium and ting her pen against the speaker’s head, instead.
Nobody got attacked. That was the weird thing. How can you have a party conference without an attack on another party? How can 46 speakers talk passionately and never once take a pop at Labour, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael or Brian Cowen?
They just don’t do that nasty stuff at all, and it’s very frustrating. Like an egg without salt, it is, to have to listen to idealism unleavened by bitchiness. The Greens are like environmental Quakers. They know they have the way, the truth and the life, and their code prevents them doing what any good Catholic would do: take off after the heathens and heretics and knock the hell out of them. The Greens just look sad that the others haven’t converted. Yet.
Being in partnership with the most hated party in Dáil Éireann didn’t seem to worry the speakers on the first night of their conference at all. Their point of view, expressed in several different ways, was that, for one thing, they hadn’t been in Government when many of the policies that dropped Ireland into the insolvency pond were dreamed up, ergo could not be found guilty of those policies.
In addition, they were eager to suggest — as all small coalition partners always suggest — that things would have been much worse if they hadn’t been at the cabinet table, gently urging Fianna Fáil to see the error of their ways.
This is a line coalition parties share with bad PR consultants. When their client is the butt of every radio jokester and the target of tabloid venom, such a PR consultant sets out to convince the client that if the PR consultant hadn’t been around to smooth down the sharp edges of this or that journalist, the coverage would have been much worse. The client, when they’re listening to this guff, is usually too shell-shocked to see it for what it is.
Mary White dragooned the speakers in half-dozen batches onto the platform and back down off the platform at admirable speed. I had writer’s cramp by the third batch.
“This is like speed-dating, isn’t it?” muttered Donal Geoghegan out of the side of his mouth.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said virtuously.
“You’re filling the wrong form,” Noel Whelan said.
I suppose it was fortunate that I didn’t have the time to add the postscript I wanted to add to each form, begging each of these talented energetic people to do anything rather than go into politics.
They’ve heard all the stories of betrayal and disappointment, and they don’t believe them, exemplifying the old saw that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.
But maybe that’s a good thing…