Fianna Fáil think tank turns out to be an extremely private party


Even protesters seem half-hearted as Fianna Fáil's think tank enters lockdown mode, writes Kathy Sheridan

IT WOULD have been easier to cadge a free dinner in the notoriously pricey 'Ballybrit tint' than to gain admission to the Clayton Hotel (just yards from the racecourse, poignantly, but light years in spirit away from the bacchanalian FF scenes of yore) without a pass.

Such is the security lockdown that hotel staff have to produce ID cards to get inside to work.

The hotel - bed capacity about 400 - has been closed to all but the 110 FF thinkers (78 TDs, 28 senators and four MEPs) since Sunday. Seven sent teachers' notes. They included one Bertie Ahern who was otherwise detained.

Were Ministers disappointed to be denied the genius yet modesty of the man who reckoned he could have given the economy an aul' dig-out but for - well, you know? The question raised a big smirk on Micheál Martin's face.

"With the exception of the ladies football which has to conclude next week, when the championship cycle is ended, I think I'll talk to him in terms of how we can deal with Europe," he said cheerfully.

It was a rare joke in a dry day. They weren't being paranoid about security, insisted a stoical FF press woman in the morning; a few people had tried to gate-crash. The mystery is why?

Why in the name of God would they want to break into the most contrived, controlled event in the political calendar?

Media are "welcome" in the sense that they are allowed into the hotel, even if the astounding 50 of us (one for every 2.2 thinkers) waving accreditation are piling the agony on the planet by having to commute from another hotel. Journalists are not allowed into the sessions, not even to hear the opening address by the Taoiseach, even though his script was being distributed while he spoke.

So there we are, at great expense, looking relatively respectable, loitering like bolshy children. Suddenly a "star" deigns to twinkle in our midst and says something he could have said anytime around Leinster House and we're in a dirty, eye-stabbing scrum.

Then it's back to the lurking . . . Even the protesters outside the magic cordon seem half-hearted. Gardaí stood ready to quell breaches of the peace before a handful of anti-fees students and Lisbon activists, a few Shell to Sea men waving a Mayo flag and some potentially highly libellous banners about Bertie Ahern, plus a coachload of Save Sligo Cancer Services campaigners with pink balloons.

For FF purposes, the gardaí might have been better deployed building a sound barrier around John McGuinness. His exquisitely timed weekend broadside against the public service unions led to a wave of protestations by various innocents that he was only expressing his own opinion.

"It wasn't something that I had prior notice of", said the Taoiseach inscrutably. "He chose to express his opinion . . . and I'd prefer to leave matters at that", said Brian Lenihan firmly. If only it were that simple.

Batt O'Keeffe was in fighting form first thing, happily walking straight into the media's clammy embrace to take on the university heads.

"We have increased the funding to third-level by one-third over the last three years yet, coming into office, the presidents of the various universities have indicated that they're starved for cash. I can't understand that."

Still, on one of the worst days in global financial history, it was good to hear Dermot Ahern assert that the mood in the party was "very good" and the Taoiseach insist that the malcontents who say that we haven't "made enough of this [economic] success" are wrong.

"I disagree and more importantly I believe most Irish people disagree."

Martin continued the political run of unfortunate Lisbon slip-ups while extolling Ireland's virtues as a gateway to Europe for investors; we're the only English-speaking country in the euro zone, he said.

Malta and Cyprus might have something to say about that.

Anyway, the day had a perfect Fianna Fáil ending. At 5.10pm, the dulcet tones of Beverley Flynn came wafting from the corridor: "I'm hittin' the bar."