The past hung like a cloud over the Fianna Fáil ard fheis in Dublin’s RDS.
Long-deceased leaders smiled out of posters, reminding everybody how the gathering used to be a raucous affirmation of the spirit of the nation. Some among those tasked with carving out a future for the party are looking back to its positioning on the political spectrum in the days before the mohair suit men took over.
And the gathering provided some reassuring evidence that the practice of eating one’s dinner in the middle of the day perseveres among the solders of destiny.
Notwithstanding their lead role in wrecking the country, it’s difficult to hold a grudge against this shrunken tribe. They put their human side forward.
Michael Martin TD with his party colleagues speaking to the media at the Ard Fheis
As one seasoned observer noted on Saturday: “If you had to be stuck on a desert island with people from one of the parties, you’d pick them. And they’d find a way to get you off the island too.”
But these considerations are no longer assets in the polling booth. As an ideological divide opens up in Irish politics, Fianna Fáil is looking for a home.
The business of being all things to all people ultimately led to the party being overwhelmed by the people with all the money. Now they are a small party, trying to find a hole in the political spectrum into which they might slip with a minimum of fuss.
The gap in the political market is beginning to look like the one long occupied by the Labour Party. Fianna Fáil is going back to its roots as a centre-left entity, that which Eamon DeValera saw as defining the spirit of the nation.
Look at Willie O’Dea, up there on the main stage on Saturday morning, rounding off his spiel with the declaration: “Our objective is to make this the best small country in the world if you’re poor, homeless, or dispossessed.”
Party member Mary Byrne and vice-president Lisa Chambers with Willie O’Dea in the main hall.
That session was followed by what would once have been the ‘policing’ forum. The session was entitled ‘safer communities’, and one of the main speakers was Tony Geoghegan of the Merchants Quay drug rehabilitation centre.
No more zero tolerance or mandatory life sentences for loitering. No more pandering to the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade. Let Fine Gael off to make hay there.
Ah yes, Fine Gael. The very idea that the party might have to go into coalition as juniors partners to that shower was just too much to stomach among those who pined for the glorious past.
A motion, tabled in the small Minerva suite, committed to refraining from going into coalition with Fine Gael. The debate attracted a crowd of delegates numbering fewer than 30.
As it stands, Fianna Fáil has now ruled out going into government with both possible partners — Micheál Martin has already dismissed a Sinn Féin alliance — which infers many among the faithful are happy to remain in opposition to rebuild after the general election.
Such a sentiment would have sent shudders through the ghosts of ard fheiseanna past who hovered over this event as a reminder of the days of perpetual power.
The halcyon days were represented by Alan Kinsella, a collector of political memorabilia who was invited to the event to display his wares.
“The poster of Charlie Haughey is very popular,” said Mr Kinsella. “They were queuing up to have their photos taken with it. That and the ones of Jack Lynch and Dev. Those were the glory days.”
Oh, for a chance to revisit the decades of power and endless porter, when the world was such a simpler place. The display also prompted a little grumbling about how those leaders of old would not have put up with the dissent that Micheál Martin is being subjected to from a few dissonant voices in the senior ranks.
John McGuinness was not the most popular boy in the class among the upper echelons, but some of his comments did strike a note among the subdued rank and file.
At least modernity and the economic collapse hadn’t yet managed to intrude on one of the more sacred rituals of the soldiers of destiny knees-up.
In the aptly named Inspire restaurant, he could be seen at the height of the middle of the day, tucking into the dinner, drawing comfort from the cooked food secure in the knowledge that at least this could not be taken away from them like so much else.
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