In polls and at dinner, people ask should they stay or go?

Pat Magner was getting stuck into the dinner when the protesters started banging on the restaurant window. Around him, diners at the Labour conference lowered knife and fork, momentarily arrested by shock.

Not Magner, this old dog who has travelled the hard road with the party. He kept horsing into the carvery, a perfect gesture of defiance, until somebody came along and pulled the blinds, cutting out sight, if not sound, of those who would interrupt a man eating his dinner in the middle of the day.

Magner’s carvery was a metaphor for the overriding theme at the Labour party conference in Killarney. Defiance permeated the meeting rooms and conference halls of the INEC where 600-plus delegates congregated.

The polls say the party’s goose is cooked. Outside the convention centre, platoons of gardaí were deployed behind steel fences to keep protesters at bay. Obituaries are already being written. But they remain defiant, grasping straws such as the recent economic data in particular, to claim that the tide is turning, that the end may not, after all, be nigh.

Mood, rather than motions debated, pledges made, and records trumped, is what governs party conferences these days. The fare on view is almost entirely scripted for the outside world. What really matters, that which delegates take back home, is the sense of, or lack of, confidence, about the next election. If you keep telling yourself things can only get better, who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Seán Ó hArgáin is a former mayor of Kilkenny,who lost his local authority seat in last year’s elections cull. He is hopping mad at Phil Hogan for abolishing town councils. Between that and the debacle over Irish Water, Big Phil’s name was taken in vain more than once over the weekend in Killarney.

“In October 2010, we were at 33% in the polls,” says Ó hArgáin. “We ended up with 19%. That’s the way it goes. I wouldn’t be taking too much notice of the polls. There’s no way that one in three votes are going to go to Independents or the Socialists [as the polls suggest]. We’re still in there.”

There is also a sense that the torch has been passed. The party’s big beasts, who have retreated from the frontline — Eamon Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn, and Pat Rabbitte — were noticeable by their absence on Saturday morning, although all did their duty as the afternoon wore on.

In their stead, Joan Burton was gladhanding for Ireland, and the delegates responded in kind. Her leader’s speech was competent, well- delivered, touched all bases, and made the right noises, but she will require major assistance in locating fire in the party’s belly.

The real standard bearer of defiance is Alan Kelly, the environment minister. “I enjoy a challenge,” he told the gathering on Saturday.

“We have people talking about the right to water. What about the right to water for my children, for your children,” he said, referencing the creaking infrastructure. Old heads nodded sagely. Others barely kept their seats. Kelly is now seen as the real deal.

“In Cuba you have to pay for water,” he said. There you go. His vaunting ambition was always apparent, but there is a definite sense that Kelly is really doing the business since assuming the senior portfolio. He does not attract the kind of affection usually reserved for party honchos.

Instead, there is grudging but growing respect for a political persona which these days resembles a cross between Wyatt Earp and Roy Keane. Expect to see much more of Kelly’s six-shooters, fighting a rearguard action for the party in the last chance saloon.

The only nervousness to rain on the weekend was the impending arrival of an organised water protest on Saturday. All within the conference complex were being held in a form of lockdown, behind high steel fences, patrolled by the Public Order Unit and an army of uniforms.

After midday, word was passed around about the progress and numbers of protesters as they advanced on the INEC after congregating in the town. As it turned out, the gathering was relatively small — around 500 — and largely peaceful. A small element broke from the main protest as they neared the INEC and a brief confrontation ensued.

Apart from that, the only inconvenience for both guards and delegates was the brief banging on the restaurant windows.

High winds and driving rain soon saw the protesters dissipate. The chant of “no way, we won’t pay” fell silent and should, according to one wag, have been replaced with “no way, we won’t stay”.

How many Labour TDs will be staying around after the next election remains to be seen. If the weekend is anything to go by, they won’t go down without some class of a fight.

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