Martin pulls his punches in FF conference long on platitudes but short on inspiration

Sketch: Everyone waited for the party leader to get stuck into the Government. And waited . . .

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin delivers the leader’s address to  the party’s 75th ardfheis in Killarney. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin delivers the leader’s address to the party’s 75th ardfheis in Killarney. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mon, Mar 24, 2014, 01:00

The Government is in crisis. The Cabinet appears divided.

The Taoiseach is all over the place – his carefully constructed image wilting under unwelcome scrutiny.

Happy days for Fianna Fáil, so.

Micheál Martin travelled to Kerry at the weekend with the political equivalent of an open goal in front of him.

In fairness, he didn’t miss the net. He just ran straight past it.

This was the party’s 75th ardfheis. A diamond jubilee milestone for the down-on-their- luck Soldiers of Destiny.

“Recovery for All” read their incomplete slogan . . . “Beginning with Ourselves” it should have finished.

Their conference was the last in a series of televised set- pieces from the main parties before the local and European election campaigns.

By a narrow margin, it triumphed as the dullest and most uninspiring of them all. For some unfathomable reason, Fianna Fáil decided not to make a drama out of the Coalition’s crisis.

The highlight of keynote night in the National Events Centre in Killarney came, not from anything done or said by Fianna Fáil, but from a little known Independent TD who got caught sending lewd messages to women and resigned his seat.

Eminently forgettable
Apart from the news of Patrick Nulty’s Facebook indiscretions, Saturday night in Killarney was eminently forgettable.

This, despite the Government obligingly teeing up Fianna Fáil’s ardfheis for them with a dreadful few months of messy management and depressingly old-school politics.

Yes, they had dirtied their bib while in power, but the people made them pay dearly for it. Three years down the line, Fianna Fáil has done its fair share of apologising.

Time to starting motoring a little again.

Against this backdrop, there should have been more flair and fortitude to the fightback on Saturday.

Micheál Martin managed just one sickly swipe at Alan Shatter, and not a mention of the whstleblowers he’s been loudly cherishing in the Dáil.

And what about that great punchline gifted to him by the Garda Commissioner, aided and abetted by Shatter and the Taoiseach’s unswerving support?

Want to know what is really “disgusting”?

Micheál could have given receptive TV viewers chapter and verse on Government statements and deeds that could more properly be described as “disgusting!”

But he didn’t.

Fianna Fáil has adopted a strange approach to the whistleblowing drama that is Disgusting Gate. The party is keen to attack the Minister for Justice and his Government, but is pulling its punches when it comes to the Garda Commissioner.

It is as if it has taken a decision not to say anything that might discommode the upper echelons of the force.

In the end, not much of a speech, full of platitudes and aspiration but little more.

Maybe, in the run-up, the party became paralysed with shock when they took a look at Fine Gael and Labour and saw themselves staring back.

Following the example set by the other parties, the bright young things were thrown onstage at the end of the address – but this couldn’t mask the overwhelming shade of grey in the audience.

These sort of political events tend to attract an older attendance, but even allowing for that, the age profile of delegates was worryingly short on youth.

The big supporting role on the night fell to Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick, whose main claim to fame is that she was never a member of the Bertie Ahern admiration society when he was in his pomp in Dublin Central.

Now, this tenacious politician, who outlasted the Drumcondra mafia, is her party’s Dublin choice in the European elections.

”Fianna Fáil and Labour have been busy repeating the mistakes of the past,” she declared, drawing a discreet veil over her party’s original sins.

Weak jokes
There were swipes at Alan Shatter, some weak jokes about his racy novel and a few jibes at Phil Hogan, but it took a mention of James Reilly to wake up the audience. When they heard his name, the greying ranks booed like a panto audience greeting their favourite villain.

After Mary’s lavish introduction, the star turn bounded up with his “courage” and his “vision” and a blast of thumpety- thump music to get the blood racing.

Everyone sat back and waited for him to get stuck into the government. And waited . . .

By the time he got around to claiming the glory, yet again, for introducing the smoking ban a decade ago, we were seriously thinking of going back on the fags.

Then he trumpeted that Fianna Fáil was responsible for creating the Road Safety Authority.

Ireland, by the way, “is at a defining moment”.

It was edge-of-the-seat stuff.

There was hearty approval when Micheál spoke of “helping the elderly to live as full a life as they can”, but a strong commitment to same-sex marriage got a decidedly lukewarm reception.

The parliamentary party, bulked out by those young candidates, sat nearest the platform. Colm Keaveney, late of the Labour Party, was stationed a few rows back, near Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú.

Oh, the glamour of it.

“We need a politics that is fit for purpose,” quivered Micheál, as a slack-jawed media trawled Twitter for further nuggets from the Nulty shocker.

Everyone was on the lookout for members of the ancient regime, with sightings of Mary Hanafin, Batt O’Keefe, Dick Roche, Pat Carey and John Moloney.

But no sign of Kerry’s John O’Donoghue, former minister and ceann comhairle. The Bull O’Donoghue, who is studying for the Bar, was above in Dublin, doing a law exam.