You've got to hand it to Enda, the low fives were a nice touch
ARDFHEIS SKETCH:IT WAS A case of sedation over ovation.
But Fine Gael’s imposition of a cruel austerity on displays of tribal yahooing was bravely borne by the faithful on Saturday night.
Having waited 16 years to wallow in the heady embrace of power, they were bursting for a good hooley. Sadly, for the sake of the party, they couldn’t party.
Delegates were reduced to polite applause, resisting their urge to roar like lunatics and jive in the aisles. As an exercise in self-denial, the ardfheis was a definite success. Inside though, they were dancing.
Enda Kenny led by example and introduced a new type of speech – the low-keynote address. It requires the speaker to look and sound mildly depressed. Enda nailed it. In the auditorium, delegates yawned in solidarity.
At one point, near the end of the speech, we feared he might burst into tears. Without a doubt, the Taoiseach was tired and emotional. He’s the first person in the history of ardfheiseanna to reach that condition without having a drop of drink taken.
In another break with tradition, the leader abandoned his compulsive use of high fives. As he bustled through the hall, Enda executed a series of low fives, his elbow never getting above waist level.
For the times that are in it, the Taoiseach’s tone was just right.
He looked shattered. Face gaunt, dark circles under his tired eyes. And why wouldn’t he be exhausted, sighed delegates, with all the work he’s been doing around the globe? We heard the clucks of concern afterwards, everyone saying Enda is pushing himself too hard.
This won’t have gone unnoticed by television viewers either.
Behind the Taoiseach, ranged in ascending politburo style, sat the members of his parliamentary party. This was the way an ardfheis stage used to look in the olden days, before image consultants and focus groups took over. So the Taoiseach was front and centre, his team in solid support, looking martyred.
Except for the Bruisers in Chief sitting nearest the boss – Michael Noonan and James Reilly.
Baldy and the Beast.
The Minister for Finance wore his usual half grin. The Minister for Health, with hairy menace, sported the other half.
Big Phil Hogan, in the front row, wasn’t having much success at trying to make himself invisible.
The Minister for the Environment was the villain of the piece as far as the household charge protesters were concerned. Thousands of them gathered outside to demonstrate.
While the vast majority of the marchers noisily exercised their right to peaceful protest, there was a nasty edge to the demonstration. A small section of the crowd – angry and aggressive individuals – roared abuse at the delegates, pushing and shoving as they tried to go past.
“I’m not Phil Hogan!” insisted a man to these bawling morons, who mistook him for the Minister. Gardaí had to escort him to safety.
Once inside, the shaken delegates relived their ordeal.
“I was called a fascist bollix,” one man told us, looking insulted.
Then he laughed. “I suppose I am, really.” In a surreal twist, the gardaí ordered that blackout blinds be drawn on all the windows facing onto the protest.
But this action sent out a dreadful image, one of a Government turning its back on legitimate protest.
Back inside, the resultant mid-afternoon darkness didn’t discommode anyone: once you pass through the doors of an ardfheis, you’ve already entered the Twilight Zone.
Enda emerged for a quick press conference. We knew he was getting near by the approaching smacking noises as he low-fived his way up the travelator.
A year in the job. He must be loving it. There were so many microphones and recorders on the rack in front of him that the hinges collapsed. Two female FG staffers had to kneel in front as he spoke, heads bowed to stay out of the camera shots while they held up the bockety stand.
It looked very odd. Almost biblical. The Adoration of the Enda. The women were mortified. The Taoiseach was delighted.
Then one of the journalists mentioned Denis O’Brien, spoiling the moment. It was a temporary blip before he got back to manhandling the giggling faithful.
There were no such displays of levity during the big low-keynote address. To get them in the required mood, delegates were shown a video about people who died in the past year.
Party chairman Charlie Flanagan gave the delegates a brief opportunity to loosen their stays with a knockabout speech attacking the Opposition parties.
Next up was the delegates’ darling – Michael Noonan. Standing ovation guaranteed.
Noonan was the hero of the hour, having staved off our repayment on a €3 billion promiscuous note with his bond. But his speech was lacklustre by his standards.
James Reilly introduced Enda. In keeping with the po-faced theme of earnest endeavour, both Michael and James sounded like they’d been sedated. Then Enda read the sorrowful mysteries and modestly pledged he would try to make things better.
One final bout of applause – not a yahoo to be heard – and the platform party shuffled around their leader in a dignified way. (Apart from athlete Eamon Coghlan, who hurdled his way to Enda’s shoulder and then held his ground as the others jockeyed for position.) There was a function afterwards in a huge hall. No dancing, mind. All very genteel. A jazz band played quietly on a small stage. The Taoiseach, minus razzmatazz, worked the room.