No room for triumphalism as Kenny downplays party atmosphere


ANALYSIS:‘We will not celebrate until Ireland has reason to celebrate,’ insists tuned-in Taoiseach

LAST MONTH Fine Gael hastily aborted a photocall to coincide with the party’s first year in government. The public was deprived of seeing a host of TDs and Senators parade around Merrion Square brandishing stars and placards boasting of the party’s achievements.

The exercise led to a few bloody noses but at least the party learned a valuable lesson about how to comport itself during its ardfheis at the weekend. The zeitgeist was against that type of self-adulation. There was no room for triumphalism. The volume had to be turned down.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny signalled as much when he arrived at the Convention Centre Dublin on Saturday. Musing on his keynote speech coming later that night, he said: “I will try to say to people that this is not an ardfheis of exultation. This is a sober reflection on the journey that we have come over the past 12 months.”

Finding an apposite tone became very important for the party’s strategists in the run-up to the event. Of course, there was plenty to exult about and not all of that could easily be suppressed. This would be Kenny’s first ardfheis as Taoiseach – the party’s first ardfheis in government in 15 years. And the manner of accession to power wasn’t in the usual skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

The 2011 election marked a thumping victory, coming very close to winning an overall majority. And the party – and the Coalition – has had a good first year in government.

But there was a caution that being over-celebratory would strike a discordant note. Very early on in his speech, Kenny confirmed as much: “We will not celebrate until Ireland has reason to celebrate. Tonight unemployment remains too high. Too many families are struggling to make ends meet.”

Only two motions caused any stir. One was a motion criticising the closure of the Vatican Embassy. The proposer said the motion had been watered down by HQ and got support from some parliamentarians.

The other, on the other end of the spectrum, was to prioritise analysis of same-sex marriage, and was passed.

Other than the fear of being tainted by triumphalism, there were other factors that had the potential to cast a shadow over the celebration.

The ardfheis coincided with the closing date for the €100 household charge. The campaign to persuade 1.8 million households to register for the new tax was a bit of a disaster, with Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan under siege all weekend. His difficulties were compounded by the convention centre’s status as the most accessible venue in the State for would-be protesters. More than 5,000 arrived on Saturday afternoon with a lot of noise and anger. For a while it looked like this had the potential to derail the conference, but the crowd quickly dissipated.

There was another potential landmine. That was the demand for repayment of a €3.06 billion instalment of the Government’s €30 billion promissory note for Anglo Irish Bank. If the Government was bounced into paying it would have served as a painful reminder of its failure to fulfil its promises to impose burden-sharing on bondholders and to clinch a deal to ease the payment of the note.

Michael Noonan came back with a solution that had a bit of a trick-of-the-loop to it, but it was enough to allow the party claim a breakthrough of sorts.

Kenny’s speech wasn’t revolutionary, and it had its fair share of cliched political incantation. Moreover, it was a leader’s speech so it was going to have its quota of self-praise and self-justification.

But in comparison to those of recent Fianna Fáil taoisigh it was awash with honesty and humility. It acknowledged failures to make good on promises, including on upward-only rent reviews. Kenny also accepted that after a year in government mortgage arrears remained a serious problem for families, and that despite Coalition efforts the burden of the bank bailout remains too high.

The vision part didn’t spring any surprises: jobs, helping the jobless, fostering business and investment, coming up with new solutions for those with crisis mortgages.

More immediately there is the referendum on the fiscal compact. Kenny repeated what is going to be a stark message during the campaign. A No vote will put the country’s future and its children’s future in jeopardy.

There was little new disclosed at the weekend. In fact the most revealing part of Kenny’s speech had nothing to do with facts or issues. It was his reference to the idea of “drive” being behind every aspect of what the Government is undertaking. The new Government has brought a modicum of new thinking, but what had marked it out from its predecessor is an enormous “drive” and energy. And none shows this more than the politician at the top of the pile.

It was euphony rather than euphoria. But it worked for the 3,000-plus delegates and probably did for most others following it.