The last time they were here, in September 2005, Bertie Ahern was halfway through his second term as taoiseach, the economy was roaring, developers were building 100,000 houses a year, nothing could go wrong, and the highlight of an uproarious evening was when the late and much-loved Longford TD Peter Kelly belted out an Elvis number while juggling his shoes and balancing a pint of water on his head. It was that sort of night.
The years since have not been good to Fianna Fáil. And while the mood was pretty upbeat among TDs and Senators arriving past the mica-protesters at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Co Cavan on Thursday afternoon, the meeting comes against a background of division in the ranks of the parliamentary party and deep uncertainty about its future.
The showdown between party leader Micheál Martin and the rebel alliance, when it eventually came, wasn’t quite Luke Skywalker meets Darth Vader. Though it wasn’t quite When Harry Met Sally either.
Criticisms were made. Discussions were had. Regime change was called for, and rebuffed. Responsibility was shouldered manfully all round. It was resolved to move forward together in a spirit of party unity and purpose. And if you believe that I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
The truth is that there is a rump in the parliamentary party opposed to Martin’s leadership for a variety of reasons. Some of them detest him. Others don’t, but believe he is leading the party on the road to perdition. Whatever their motivation, some of them will never be reconciled to his continued leadership.
But what Thursday’s meeting told us is that the true regicides don’t have the numbers to take him out, and the others don’t believe the time is right for defenestration. Crucially, there was no move against Martin by the decisive middle-ground TDs. But either way, the divisions in the party will remain.
Before he went into the afternoon session Martin said he intended to be Tánaiste after December 2022 – when he is due to swap places with Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael – and to lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election. Attitude of the rebels: we’ll see about that.
But as Sean Fleming’s report on the party’s performance made clear, Fianna Fáil’s difficulties are not limited to internecine rivalry. In fact, that may be the least of it.
The report identifies an alarming lack of a distinctive identity for the party and its place on the Irish political landscape.
Astonishingly, less than a third of respondents to the party’s internal survey – and remember, these are party members, sufficiently committed to contribute to the process – believe the party “has a clear and distinct identity”.
And if the party members don’t know what Fianna Fáil stands for, how on earth are regular voters supposed to know?
This is the sharp version of the question that has haunted Fianna Fáil since it lost its position as the natural party of government. When you are in power most of the time you don’t have to describe what you are for – it’s obvious you are for being in government, for wielding power. You’re for what you are.
But as political competition in Ireland has changed from a question based on what you want rather than who you are, the party has stuttered to describe and define itself.
The answer chosen by Martin – and one with which a great number of his colleagues and party members are in agreement – is that Fianna Fáil is for a strong economy which finances a strong State, a State which is dedicated to housing, healthcare, pensions, education, and the rest of it.
But these are not questions on which there is a sharp political divide with other parties. Everyone in Irish politics is in favour of these things. So what makes Fianna Fáil different?
To which question the party answers: delivery. We will get the job done.
To that extent Martin and the rebels and the Fleming report are all in agreement: if the party is to have any future it must succeed in government in making a difference for the better in people’s lives.
On that question the jury will remain out for some time to come.