Presentation is low-key but mood at Fine Gael conference is buoyant
Stage-managed ardfheis allowed Taoiseach shimmy from Seanad defeat
At the end of his speech Noonan ad-libbed that people would be astounded by the good things in the budget. If it is seen as tough tomorrow it may rebound. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Commentators have lavished a lot of attention in recent years on the impact of US electoral strategy and techniques on Irish politics. But when it comes to party conferences the influence is closer, in truth, to North Korea.
Once upon a time there was a bit of spit and polish and grit to them – arguments, disputes, splits, speeches of defiance. Now the parties have so painstakingly stage managed them from beginning to end it has become an uninterrupted flow of “Hail glorious leader” tributes from pliant members.
This isn’t a singular criticism of Fine Gael – all parties do it nowadays. It just seemed more apparent at the national conference in Limerick this weekend. Perhaps it was because of the proximity of the budget that completely overshadowed everything else. Perhaps it was because Fine Gael is long enough in power to allow the leader’s speech become a list of achievements, reminiscent of the well-thumbed template for Bertie Ahern.
Unsurprisingly, all of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s interviews over the weekend concerned the budget. Indeed, if Kenny himself had not brought up the Seanad referendum defeat in his speech you would have almost thought the mishap had not occurred.
Unexpectedly, Kenny announced that the electoral franchise for the six university seats in the Seanad would be extended to all the major third-level institutions. It was politically astute. There is no constitutional bar to this change, given that the extension was the subject of a successful referendum in 1979. By moving quickly and by implementing a real reform rather than a gestural one he has effectively drawn a line under the matter. It is unlikely that there will be any further initiatives for quite a while. But the key thing is he was able to show he was not sitting on his hands.
There was a bigger message and that was, unsurprisingly, related to the budget. Not so much about the document that will be delivered tomorrow but about its impact: specifically that it will open the final sluicegate and allow the ship of State sail into clear blue waters on its own steam for the first time since the autumn of 2010.
The significance of that December 15th date should not be underestimated – economic independence will have huge symbolic and political importance. The two Government parties are convinced that that – excuse the clunky cliche – paradigm shift will in itself be enough to utterly change the shape of the political landscape.
Besides the Seanad announcement, the other revelation in his speech was that December 15th will be the date on which Ireland unshackles itself from the cold embrace of the troika and stands on its own two feet.
The choreography of the entire weekend’s proceedings led up to this moment. Nowadays, part of the warm-up to the leader’s speech in the main auditorium is a knockabout video that ridicules the party’s rival – for Fine Gael the main villains will always be Fianna Fáil. The rogues’ gallery this time featured Bertie Ahern, Willie O’Dea (pointing a handgun), Brian Cowen, Micheál Martin and (inappropriately) Brian Lenihan. The narrative was an unsubtle reminder of the period leading up the ignominy of the bailout.
Kenny could tell the delegates that the goal of economic sovereignty was “within our grasp”.
“At last, the era of the bailout will be no more. The economic emergency will be over. The exit from the bailout is not an end in itself. In fact it’s just the beginning. The beginning of our freedom to choose the kind of Ireland we want to build.”
That Sunday in December will be replete with symbolism. The Coalition parties will see it as the moving moment, that point in time when the electoral pendulum will swing back in its direction.
The party’s other towering figure is Noonan and here in Limerick he was among his own. He sat on stage looking like an inscrutable Buddha as praise was lavished. People queued to touch the hem. His every pronouncement was greeted with a roar.
He made one significant announcement: that the cash balance reserve of €25 billion held by the National Treasury Management Agency may allow Ireland not to sign up to a follow-up programme (shorthanded as a second bailout) where it can avail
of a contingency fund or backstop. That decision has yet to be made.
At the end of his speech Noonan ad-libbed that people would be astounded by the good things in the budget. If it is seen as tough tomorrow it may rebound.
Kenny was deliberately low-key in his approach. The rest of his address was a rattling through of the achievements: the promissory note; the Magdalene survivors; Priory Hall; and making Anglo Irish Bank defunct.
In general the conference was a controversy-free zone. This is a party that is settled in Government with a leader popular among his ranks. Unlike anxiety-riven Labour, the mood-o-meter read: “buoyant”.