Elephants in room trample wild fantasies of rebuilding


SKETCH:Micheál Martin did his best to ignore it but the two faces of Fianna Fáil were on full display here

IT WAS all terribly awkward.

An excruciating comedy of manners where the anxious principals were petrified they might say the wrong thing and upset the whole country, again, while simultaneously fretting about bumping into embarrassing old acquaintances who would make a show of them.

The tense undercurrent made for an odd atmosphere – quite unlike anything experienced at party conferences down the years.

And yet, on the surface, Fianna Fáil’s 73rd ardfheis went off very well. It looked great. The delegates turned out in force and were on their best behaviour. Nearly everyone tried to smile and sound positive.

But it’s difficult to put the best foot forward when you’re walking on eggs.

On Saturday, it was like Dublin zoo on tour in the RDS, such was the number of elephants in the room being studiously ignored by the top brass.

This ardfheis may have been badly needed to boost Fianna Fáil’s sagging morale and begin the rebuilding process, but there was a sense that the party leader and his backroom team just wanted to get it over and done with without any major mishap.

Micheál Martin’s relieved smile at the end of his keynote address spoke volumes.

He had performed well. He got through it. But that’s about all the comfort he can take from the day.

He still remains shackled to his recent past. Two searing reminders of it – one ridiculous, the other damning – will stand as the defining images from his first ardfheis as leader.

If Bertie Ahern’s arrival early in the day delighted the media, it sickened the party’s new brooms, working hard on their programme of “renewal”. One TD, when told the former taoiseach was nearby, loudly cursed his presence and did an abrupt about turn.

At one point, Martin had to cross Bertie’s orbit to get to a radio interview. He moved like greased lighting to avoid his former boss, who he had criticised from the platform the night before.

Brassneck Bertie hasn’t missed a Fianna Fáil Ardfheis since 1972, we were told on his behalf. (The excuse for turning up.) He didn’t speak to the media.

It made no difference whether he said anything or not. Just being there was a gesture of defiance and provocation to the party leader.

He stood around, exchanging inanities with grinning grassroots, fully aware of the convulsions he was causing among the handlers and fully aware he was being photographed and filmed.

A great help for a party trying to make a break with the past.

In the main, Bertie attracted two types of delegate – there were the old-timers, perhaps nostalgic for the good days but probably more inclined towards the view that you don’t kick a man when he’s down. And there were the giggling younger members, crowding around for photographs because it’d be a hoot to have a picture of themselves and the notorious Ahern up on the Facebook page.

But lest it is forgotten, delegates in their thousands cheered Bertie to the rafters at the last ardfheis in 2009, when he was already in disgrace.

The other image was of a long, long line of people outside the building next door, waiting to get into a hiring fair. Queuing in their thousands to leave the country that Fianna Fáil left them.

“Be part of the renewal” was the slogan chosen for this ardfheis. “Be part of the diaspora” might have been more appropriate.

The proximity of the Working Abroad Expo was another embarrassing reminder of the past but everyone averted their eyes and said nothing.

This is because the weekend was all about forgetting the recent past and moving on. But how could anyone forget the excesses and arrogance of the boom-time years when the two faces of Fianna Fáil were on full display? And which one does Micheál Martin see when he looks in the mirror? The one which was in cabinet for over a decade with Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen – or the one apologising for having been a part of it? This was the perpetually puzzled-looking Martin’s problem before the ardfheis began and it was still his problem when it finished.

Behind the party leader on his swish octagonal podium sat the younger members of the party and those deputies who survived the general election cull. The shiny and fresh-faced ones were cleverly framed in the backdrop.

Off to Micheál’s left sat the old guard – his former cabinet colleagues and former taoiseach Brian Cowen. Ahern, despite rumours that he was due in the hall, stayed away. An astute move. He got what he wanted earlier.

Bertie – once adored – is now the party’s pantomime villain. Brian Cowen, on the other hand, was viewed with sympathy and affection on Saturday night. He got a huge, lengthy ovation when his presence was announced from the platform.

The grassroots appear to see him as a victim of circumstance. Cowen looked embarrassed by their response, reluctantly rising to his feet to acknowledge their noisy tribute.

He was always a loyal party man. However disastrous his management of the country may have been, Cowen always had Fianna Fáil’s interests at heart. They don’t think that of Bertie Ahern anymore.

First time TD Robert Troy of Longford Westmeath did the warm-up speech, and did it well. Then it was Micheál’s turn. His delivery was polished and he made all the right noises.

The delegates were pleased. But the public will have seen those images of Bertie Ahern, and the crowd lustily cheering for Brian Cowen and the smiling former ministers trooping into the RDS.

It was always going to be very awkward for Micheál Martin – the old broom among the new.

Then up pops Dick Roche yesterday morning with words of encouragement, to help him deeper into purgatory.

“I think he got the zeitgeist of the moment just right,” opined the former junior minister, as radios were hurled out of windows all over the country.

One step forward. Two steps back.

Very awkward.