THEY stood side by side, Dev and Dev Óg.
Éamon de Valera was on an election poster dating from 1959. The poster bore the legend: “For President Vote No 1”. Éamon Ó Cuív was posing with the poster for a woman who wanted a novel photo reflecting the generational links in the party.
It was early on Saturday morning; early by ard fheis standards. Ó Cuív had just come out of a seminar entitled Sustaining Rural Communities. Once the meeting broke up, he was met by a queue of well-wishers. Here at least, in the rural wing of the party, he was among his own.
Soon after emerging into the main hall, he was approached by the woman with her camera and asked to pose next to his grandfather. Another woman got him to do it again. He had a wide smile and seemed to be enjoying himself.
If Ó Cuív thought the ard fheis would bring a swell of support for his stance on Europe, he was badly mistaken. There would be no busting-up of the party over this.
There would be no repeat of scenes from the post-Arms Crisis 1971 ard fheis, in which Paddy Hillery roared from the podium: “Ye can have Blaney but ye won’t have Fianna Fáil.” That scene was running on a video of the party’s history in the main hall, but history was not about to repeat itself.
Ó Cuív was well received by many of the gathering. He is well liked and respected. He has a purchase on the rural wing of the party. There are even some to see in him traces of his grandfather. One wag at the ard fheis noted that Ó Cuív’s problem may be that he sees a lot of his grandfather in himself, and maybe he’s seeing things.
On Friday, as he made his entrance, he had a few words for the media. Since resigning as deputy leader last Wednesday, he has barely been off the airwaves. Repeatedly, he explained why he had to resign, how he couldn’t allow his principles to be compromised.
While he was perfectly entitled to let the people of Ireland know his views, his constant references to his split from Martin irritated many in the party ranks, coming in the run-up to a crucial tribal gathering.
Asked about his decision to attend, Ó Cuív expressed surprise.
“I’m delighted to be here tonight,” he said. “I’m surprised anybody would question my right to be at an ard fheis.”
On Saturday, most delegates canvassed for an opinion expressed some sympathy for Ó Cuív, but very little in the way of support.
For one thing, the Galway West TD had embarrassed the leader. Since the days of Ó Cuív’s grandfather, the leader of Fianna Fáil is regarded not so much the president of a political party as the leader of a cult. You don’t diss him, especially not when the party’s fortunes look so shaky. Irritation was a recurring theme. Apart from the timing of his announcement, some were displeased that he let his views be known on both TV and radio before informing Martin. Others referred to Ó Cuív’s equivocation on paying septic tank charges.
Martin dismissed any notion of a split or even animosity in his morning briefing. “The relationship (with Ó Cuív) is fine, it’s just a policy issue,” he said. He was also asked about insisting on conditions being attached to any yes vote, precisely what Ó Cuív is advocating.
“I don’t believe in conditionality,” Martin said.
Among the members, there was no stomach for a scrap. Ailish Whelan from Brosna in Kerry expressed the view that the leader had acted too fast in pledging support for the Government’s campaign for a yes vote.
“Micheál Martin should have taken the smirk off Enda Kenny’s face and said we will discuss this in the party first. That way Ó Cuív wouldn’t have got all the glory.”
PH Doherty from Carndonagh dismissed any notion of a challenge to Martin’s authority but, like many, he didn’t take issue with the substance of Ó Cuív’s argument.
“What Ó Cuív said, the people of Ireland wanted to hear,” he said. “He has support but there won’t be a challenge. But hundreds of thousands of people agree with what he said; we’re paying out billions for the likes of Anglo Irish Bank.”
As lunchtime approached, any novelty about Ó Cuív began to dissipate. The entrance of Bertie Ahern switched focus from the uncle you’d have preferred to stay away from the wedding to the uncle you prayed would stay away.
On Saturday evening Ó Cuív attended Martin’s centrepiece address. He remained in the body of the audience rather than joining the bulk of his parliamentary colleagues in the front row. When the camera picked him out, he was wearing his Oscar face, shaped by that tight smile best known to the also-rans on Hollywood’s big awards night.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved