Late on Friday night the Greeks came bearing gifts for Fine Gael. And for once there was little need to beware.
For several years now, critics of the compliance path pursued by the Coalition, and Fianna Fáil before it, have railed that it lacked the bottle to face up to Frankfurt or Brussels. In recent months, Sinn Féin has ramped up this argument. Gerry Adams claimed his party would have put in the hard yards – and all-night negotiations – to come back with a better deal.
Until now, such theories were not tested because they lacked laboratory conditions.
But then Greece happened. Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis found to their cost last week their force was not so irresistible after all. Syriza's gambit has backfired on them and, by corollary, has backfooted anti-austerity parties here.
The timing could not have been better for Fine Gael, setting the scene for its national convention in Castlebar, the home town of party leader and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Election in sight
It’s at least a year until the general election but this was an election conference. It included a promise of more tax cuts in forthcoming budgets – not as flagrant a goody bag as
offered in his speech before the 2007 election, but with sweeteners nonetheless.
In his keynote address to the 2,000 delegates, Kenny outlined how Fine Gael and Labour would frame the debate in the run-up to Easter 2016. Reduced, the proposition seems simplicity itself.
“[The people] will have a clear choice: between stable and coherent government, or chaos and instability,” he said.
It is now clear the Coalition parties will contest the election on a joint platform, seeking a mandate for a second term of office. The beginning of an agreed joint mandate position is clear – it will be interesting to see how Labour addresses this issue at its conference in Killarney next weekend.
We even had Leo Varadkar, a person who was very cold on a coalition with Labour, making a public admission the Government was better because Labour was part of it. Indeed, it was Varadkar who provided the roustabout partisan stuff (along with Michael Ring) with excoriating attacks on Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams.
Michael Noonan has become a revered figure for the party and carries huge authority. The subtext of the EU negotiations with Greece was never far away. The net message from his many contributions was this line from his conference speech: "If you get political instability, then economic instability will follow as sure as night follows day."
Swipe at Varoufakis
He can come across as the paragon of reasonableness, but is incredibly political and partisan. He could not resist a swipe at Varoufakis, comparing him to one of those celebrity economists who cropped up on
when things got really bad: “They were very good in theory but they weren’t very good in practice.”
Still, he did concede the Government never directly asked for debt write-down – the circumstances surrounding this admission are sure to be tested.
Elsewhere, the best debate of the weekend took place on the fringes, at a remove from the bland stuff being churned out for live television. At issue was how Fine Gael would commemorate 1916. Historian Ronan Fanning made a strong case for an "unabashed" celebration of the Rising.
The much beleaguered Heather Humphreys gave her most confident speech to date, showing that the strategy is beginning to acquire focus. There were also reassurances about the Irish language.
There was a lot of talk of the party not ceding ownership of the Rising to one party. One could divine the continuing debate between the Redmondite and republican strands.
The most impressive part of Kenny's leader's speech was the passage on same-sex marriage. In an adroit move – but one not without risk – he linked it to 2016. "As we approach the centenary of the Rising, a Yes vote would, I believe, send out a very powerful signal internationally that Ireland has evolved into a fair, compassionate and tolerant nation."