FG Ard Fheis: Taoiseach survives main address almost without gaffe

Enda Kenny spoke for almost half an hour live on TV and radio without saying anything, according to Daniel McConnell.

Enda Kenny did it. He managed it. He got through his party conference without controversy, without a gaffe, without incident.

Well almost.

On Saturday night, thousands of delegates queued for over an hour to get into the main hall at the Citywest Hotel to hear his vision for the future.

It was some contrast to Fianna Fáil the week previous, who at the same hotel had to close the bar for a short time in order to ensure the hall was full for their leader’s address.

Enda’s most impressive feat, however, was that he managed to speak for an entire half an hour live on national TV and radio without saying anything.

He certainly wasn’t about to reveal the date of the general election, as some had hoped.

Having entered the hall to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’, the Glorious Leader’s ambitions for his speech were quite clear.

Thankfully, in terms of character and morals, Enda is no Bill Clinton (who also used the song on his campaigns), but at least the former president could deliver a speech.

Give nothing away, say nothing controversial and get through it as quickly as possible without putting people to sleep.

Kenny’s wooden oratory skills meant even a good speech would struggle to land effectively, but the insipid address meant even die-hard supporters struggled to stay with him.

So bland was the speech, Enda did his best to make Peter Mathews seem exciting.

Fine Gael’s Five-Point Plan is now the Three-Step Strategy
Fine Gael’s Five-Point Plan is now the Three-Step Strategy

Surprisingly, he didn’t even take a shot at Sinn Féin once, which is always good for getting the troops riled up. A sign that a deal with Sinn Féin is not really that far-fetched, perhaps?

Throughout his address, there were 27 mentions of recovery, 25 mentions of the economy, and 24 mentions of plan.

It would seem that Enda and Fine Gael had learned some lessons from 2011 and over-promising. The Five-Point Plan is now a Three-Step Strategy, the economy will continue to grow but not as much next year, and there will be no return to boom and bust and so on and so on.

But then again, maybe they haven’t.

In side sessions throughout the day on Saturday, we heard promises to continue to cut taxes. We heard a promise to create 200,000 more jobs. Then further promises to cut inheritance taxes were leaked to the biggest selling Sunday newspaper yesterday.

All sounds very auction politics to me.

But throughout the weekend, a strange mood swept through CityWest. On one hand, the party knows it is heading back into Government, but it realises it will be reduced in numbers and therefore weaker.

Undoubtedly, the atmosphere was more positive than many previous Fine Gael gatherings when the party was in Opposition, and couldn’t help but shake that smell of being in opposition.

A confidence that at times bordered on arrogance could be sensed, even in the highly controlled messaging from the party’s leading figures.

Time and time again we heard the rather patronising tone of ministers and TDs tell us that it was the people’s efforts which saved the country.

“Reward us for your hard work” is how it came across, which is a rather bizarre message.

Gerry Reynolds TD, Roscommon, with councillor and general election candidate Josepha Madigan, Children’s Minister James Reilly, and Olivia Mitchell TD
Gerry Reynolds TD, Roscommon, with councillor and general election candidate Josepha Madigan, Children’s Minister James Reilly, and Olivia Mitchell TD

But it was also a tale of the two Michaels for those gathered.

On one hand you had another outpouring of gushing appreciation for Michael Noonan, the veteran finance minister.

He was greeted to a standing ovation on Saturday morning by delegates eager to show support to the former leader just days after the death of his brother and his recent illness.

But Noonan’s stock is very high in Fine Gael and when you consider the wilderness years he had to endure after his disastrous stint as leader, his comeback is simply remarkable.

During a valuable contribution on childcare, Dublin South Central TD Catherine Byrne in her most non-Fine Gael accent, went off script to eulogise “that great man”.

Speaking from the back of the main stage, while on national TV, with the man himself sitting directly in front of her, Byrne said Noonan had grabbed the country “by the scruff of our necks” and saved us from eternal damnation and has led us to everlasting glory.

Well, not quite, but almost.

But the other Michael to loom over the conference wasn’t even there.

Michael Lowry, a once darling of the party who has been dogged by adverse tribunal findings and repeated run-ins with the Revenue, also featured heavily on the lips of delegates.

Would the party turn to the bold Michael for support to prop up a Government if need be? Enda was asked about a possible Lowry deal by the pesky media, only to fudge his answer.

You see the Lowry force is strong with Kenny. They were in Cabinet together, they remain friends.

Enda joked at Phil Hogan’s birthday party about Lowry rejoining in 2010.

Last year, I revealed how Lowry slipped a note to the Taoiseach in the Dáil to get his “not bad looking either” associate Valarie O’Reilly reappointed to a state board.

But most importantly, Enda’s chief of staff, Mark Kenneally, who earns €156,380 a year, was Lowry’s special adviser back in the day.

We have not heard the last of this, I feel.

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