Ahern careful to save best news for the second half

 

It was an ardfheis of two halves. On Friday night Bertie Ahern set about exorcising the ghosts of the recent past when for the third - or was it the fourth? - time he promised a code of conduct that would make it difficult for cynics to point at ethical failings within the party. A new political culture would bloom under his leadership. And higher standards of behaviour and public service would be demanded of party members. It would all come together in time for next year's local and European elections.

No mention was made of the reasons for this change. No recognition of the tribunals of inquiry and the myriad investigations bearing down on previous office-holders. And no reference to the disgraced individuals involved. That is not the Taoiseach's public style. Events happen, and Mr Ahern responds, reluctantly.

But the steel core endures. His finely honed skills of political self-preservation and advancement, by way of painstaking preparations and a ruthless attention to detail, are now being exercised on behalf of Fianna Fail. The abilities that gave us national agreements, through negotiations with the social partners, also went a long way towards underpinning the Belfast Agreement.

Having got Friday night's distasteful business out of the way, the Taoiseach had a free run to celebrate the party's many successes and to promise even brighter and better days ahead.

The Belfast Agreement and the booming economy were the anchors in this exercise. From them radiated opportunities to build a new, agreed Ireland, with North-South institutions and a peaceful, progressive outlook. Within Northern Ireland there would be no more second-class citizens, no more trampling down of human rights, and no more political and sectarian murders and punishment beatings. A reformed and impartial policing service, drawn from the entire community, was absolutely vital.

And it was David Andrews who was left to call for movement by Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party in resolving the decommissioning and entry-to-executive issues.

The Belfast Agreement provided the Taoiseach with an opportunity to position Fianna Fail within the republican pantheon. With a weather eye to the political ambitions of Sinn Fein in the South, Mr Ahern declared the founders of his party were statesman who had long understood that violence or coercion could never bring together a divided people.

Having put the johnny-come-latelies in their place, he advised delegates that the conception of republicanism had been too narrow in the past and must be expanded to sustain not only an independent Ireland, but an agreed Ireland.

From there, Mr Ahern painted a bright picture of a thriving, modern Ireland, with low taxes, low inflation and low levels of unemployment. The "vision thing" included better educational facilities; higher infrastructural investment; and the positioning of the State at the top of the world league of information technology. Already the second-largest exporter of computer goods in the world, Ireland would become "a global lighthouse" in information technology, Internet and e-commerce activity.

But while the Taoiseach spoke of the need to combat disadvantage and poverty in society and to share the benefits of the economy more equitably, his proposed constitutional changes made no reference to reining in the rights of private property or affirming the primacy of the common good. Instead, there was talk of putting local government on a constitutional footing and making the language of the Constitution gender-neutral.

The "golden age of prosperity" that Mr Ahern promised would involve voluntary sharing and working through partnership, until the quality of life of disadvantaged citizens was "on a par with ours".

That sort of hyperbole was fine for the celebrations of Saturday night and the television cameras. Earlier, farmers were having none of it as they pressurised Joe Walsh to deliver them from the misery of a poor harvest and a collapse in animal prices.

There wasn't much the Minister for Agriculture could do, other than to accuse in turn the IFA, the co-ops, food processors and supermarkets of failing to recognise and take advantage of his efforts on behalf of the farming community and of ripping off consumers.

As for the future, it was gloomy. Mr Walsh promised to campaign for a restructuring of CAP funding so as to favour small and medium-sized farmers. In the meantime, the best he could offer was that Dermot Ahern would introduce a new family farm income supplement in the Budget.

The bulging attendance at the agricultural debate, compared to the pulling power of John O'Donoghue in an adjoining hall, was clear evidence that the "crime crisis" has passed. The Minister for Justice delivered a progress report to delegates within the histrionics of earlier years.

The situation was under control. His concern now centred on under-aged drinking, where the introduction of an identity card scheme for under-18s and a change in the law to require publicans to establish the ages of their young customers seemed to offer solutions.

The ardfheis was all about preparation and positioning. But, as a political event, officials complained it did not offer value for money. Next year the old relic would be dispensed with in favour of a conference to publicise the party's local election candidates.

With Mr Ahern and Fianna Fail riding high in the opinion polls, the party's honorary secretaries, Gene Fitzgerald and Mary Coughlan, raised their sights. The prize of as overall Dail majority was within reach, they said, if a sufficiently broad platform could be established in next year's local elections.

An overall Dail majority has been the dream of every Fianna Fail leader. But it hasn't happened in 21 years. Having got off to a shaky start in the last election, Mr Ahern is determined to shatter that trend.