Guns, Haughey and tribunals: 40 years of Fianna Fáil Ard Fheiseanna
Five key moments from party meetings over the past four decades
Former Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey addresses a party Ard Fheis
The 73rd Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis begins tonight in the RDS in Dublin.
The event has long been a highlight of the political year for a party that has been dominant for much of the history of the State.
This weekend, Micheál Martin gives his second address as Fianna Fáil leader. It is noteworthy that his predecessor Brian Cowen never got to give a leader’s address as his two and a half years as taoiseach and party leader coincided with the worst of the economic and banking crisis.
Here are five key moments from Fianna Fáil Ard Fheiseanna over the past four decades.
The crisis within Fianna Fáil over a secret plot to import arms to Northern Ireland deeply divided the party and dominated that year’s Ard Fheis, with tussles breaking out between supporters of leader Jack Lynch and supporters of Niall Blaney and Kevin Boland. As Dr Patrick Hillery started to speak, Boland appeared on the edge of the podium, and sections of the crowd began screaming “We Want Boland”.
Flanked by Lynch and Gerry Collins, Hillery made an impassioned and angry defence of the leadership, facing down those agitating for Boland and Blaney. The clinching line became immortal in party lore.
“Ye can have Boland, but ye can’t have Fianna Fáil.”
Charles Haughey’s first Ard Fheis address as party leader. When Lynch was leader, Haughey and his supporters deliberately set about undermining his leadership at the conference. Haughey himself ensured no such situations arose during his tenure. As he arrived on stage, his most fervent supporters in the front row held up icons and portraits of Haughey.
Given the crisis in the North most evidenced by the H-Block protests, his speech was notable for its strong rhetoric on Northern Ireland. It was here that he described it as a “failed political entity”.
Albert Reynolds had recently take over as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach and his relationship with his Coalition partners in the Progressive Democrats - and its leader Desmond O’Malley in particular - was strained to say the least. In his warm-up speech for Reynolds, a bellicose Brian Cowen let delegates know in no uncertain terms that the Fianna Fáil leadership were of the view that the PDs were no longer necessary.
“What about the PDs?” he roared to the hall. “When in doubt, leave out.”
With Charles Haughey’s defenestration by the McCracken Tribunal, Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern was under pressure to distance the party from the behaviour of its former chief and to set out a new course for the party, where graft and jobbery would no longer be tolerated.
Given the revelations that surfaced about himself a decade later, his words did not seem so much prophetic as hypocritical.
“We could not condone that practice of serving politicians seeking or receiving from a single donor large sums of money.”
A little over a month before he called that year’s general election, Ahern threw caution to the wind in his Ard Fheis address. The party had not made any massive promises until then but, in a remarkable turnaround, Ahern made the kind of promises in his speech that Fianna Fáil had last made in its infamous manifesto of 1977.
He promised a two per cent cut in tax, the PRSI rate being cut by half, a huge Garda recruitment drive, more teachers and increases in benefits and welfare.
It was a Santa Claus speech and it helped Fianna Fáil win the election in May that year. As events transpired, it further inflated a bubble that was already nearing bursting point.