Oliver Cromwell and the Fianna Fáil Ardfheis
Deaglán de Bréadún
Someone asked me what the Fianna Fáil ardfheis was like. “It was like a very large country wedding,” I replied. And it’s true. The kind of people one meets at such occasions – and this is a factual observation, not a derogatory remark – are like distant, dimly-recalled relatives from somwhere down the country who come to life from the pages of a photograph album at a family wedding or funeral.
There wasn’t the festive atmosphere of a wedding at Citywest today. The economic situation is too serious for that. There was a lively exchange between Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and a highly-articulate party activist in a fringe meeting on the economy that brought the proceedings above the usual perfunctory level you often get at party conferences.
I covered a debate about foreign affairs in which I have had a more than passing interest. Unfortunately someone had timed it to take place during the rugby international between Ireland and England. Even so, there were people in attendance but you wondered if they were just waiting for the Main Event.
That, of course, was the party leader’s address. Tánaiste Mary Coughlan read out a script and then there was a group of three tenors – practically a mandatory feature at public events nowadays. Actually, they sang extremely well and looked the part, but their version of “The Town I Loved So Well” was so slow it turned into a bit of a dirge – and that is one of my favourite songs.
We all wondered who the “warm-up” person would be. Brian Cowen himself was a dab hand at that particular gig in his day. Remember his quip about the Progressive Democrats – “If in doubt, leave them out” – which brought the house down some years back. The late Brian Lenihan Sr used to be a good warm-up speaker too, in his day.
There was an almost-inaudible groan from the media section when Noel Dempsey took the stage. No disrespect to the guy, but Billy Connolly he ain’t. However, he turned out to be surprisingly lively. He would be the first to admit that he doesn’t “do” humour but it was a tub-thumping oration that had the crowd on its feet.
He insisted that, just because FF people hang out with bankers (or used to do) it didn’t mean they should be bracketed with the bad boys in that category, whom he rather startlingly compared to Oliver Cromwell, although even Cromwell wasn’t in it for the money.
Brian Cowen’s speech was workmanlike rather than inspirational. At least that’s how it came across in the hall. Apparently on TV it worked much better and that, of course, is what counts.
The most interesting thing about it was what he did not say. I don’t think he even mentioned the Opposition. Was this lordly indifference or an implicit olive branch? Frankly, if the two sides of the Dáil chamber don’t unite on certain issues, it is hard to see how the parliamentary system can survive this crisis with any credibility.
There was a big crowd, despite some predictions that the attendance would be way down. The age-profile was high, even higher than usual, which must be a bit worrying for the party, with elections due on June 5th.