Fianna Fail isn’t sorry for your trouble any more. The party has discarded the sackcloth and ashes. It has paid its debt to society, done its time, fallen from a great height, but is now dusting down to face a challenge for survival. All has changed, but not as utterly as the members might like to think.
The feeling abroad at the party’s 77th Ard Fheis in Dublin’s Citywest Hotel was one of quiet confidence that the road back to where they believe they belong is opening up.
Five years after the great fall of ’11, a crowd estimated at a little south of 2,000 assembled at the complex to look forward to the coming election. Unlike the old days, their dreams were wrapped in hope rather than expectation.
Despite an excellent local election two years ago, nobody is sure whether it is completely safe to go out to the doorsteps again. And an even bigger quandary is what exactly the party stands for these days.
The age profile in attendance spoke volumes. For the greater part, these delegates were on the home stretch towards the old retirement age of 65, if not beyond it. It wasn’t quite as bad as the parliamentary party in gender imbalance, but the men’s shed movement would have had abundant pickings here on Saturday.
But grey wasn’t the only colour on view. There was also a cohort of bright, young things who wore their ambition lightly as they moved between the creaking joints. What was missing was a solid presence of the forty-something generation, those at the stage of career and politics who drive political entities with the right combination of experience and energy.
In this, the gathering resembled to some extent the hollowed out demographic of many towns in rural Ireland, which may be no coincidence at all.
A breezy Colm Keaveney suggested that a lot of candidates weren’t present, preferring to use their time on the doorstep. Rumours also lit up the hotel’s reception area about Fine Gael undertaking major leaflet drops in choice locations on the day that the Soldiers of Destiny had gathered to mull over their destiny.
What was evident was a few green shoots of the party’s old chutzpah. No more apologies. No more raking over the past. This is a new party intent on reminding the country what exactly it stands for.
As PJ Mara once opined, Fianna Fáil stands for being in power. But therein lies the one truth that dared not speak its name among delegates at Citywest. The only way the party will realistically be in power after the next election is as a junior coalition partner to Fine Gael. And Micheál Martin has stated that such an eventuality will not be countenanced.
One man uttering a few home truths at the ard fheis was political strategist Tim Bale, who was making a return visit after first sizing up the party four years ago. And his conclusion is that victory in this poll will represent a closing of the gap on Fine Gael, and staying ahead of Sinn Féin. Where’s the power in that analysis?
One might conclude that Prof Bale was drafted in to speak such a truth, relieving the party’s reps from doing so, while getting the message across to the faithful that such an outcome would be a victory. Instead, the modus operandi is to keep the head down and canvass like a blue-arsed fly between here and polling day. Senator Mark Daly spoke for many when he said the mood was “determined”.
“But we’re under no illusions,” he said. “We take comfort from the local election result and now it’s just a matter of getting the vote out.”
Despite all the strong-back, stout-heart, chins-up posturing, there was no escaping the past at this gathering. One leaflet on view listed all the ‘Fianna Fail Achievements Through the Decades 1926- 2015’. There was also the 1916 corner, where mid-afternoon Eamon O’Cuiv gave an address about how the party had been formed from the embers of 1916 and all the many links.
He spoke without a microphone, growing before the eyes of his rapt audience, into his grandfather’s persona with each utterance. Such was the popularity of his appearance that a party handler stepped in to move the whole thing into a “hub” where a microphone and seats were available.
The poor handler knew not what he was doing, breaking a spell that offered the faithful a rare flash of some old-time magic that may never be coming back.
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