Leaders’ ardfheis speeches will not get prime time TV slot

Varadkar to open Fine Gael summit with address focusing on Northern Ireland

 Leo Varadkar speaking at the opening Fine Gael ardfheis in 2018. File photograph: Donall Farmer

Leo Varadkar speaking at the opening Fine Gael ardfheis in 2018. File photograph: Donall Farmer

 

One of the staples of the State’s television coverage of politics look set to disappear, following a decision by RTÉ not to offer a prime TV slot for party leaders’ ardfheis speeches this year.

In a break with tradition, Fine Gael’s 80th ardfheis – held virtually because of Covid-19 restrictions – begins on Tuesday night and will run until Saturday evening, say organisers, beginning with a speech by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

The move from a weekend conference has been made partly because of Covid-19 restrictions, but some changes, such as the 5.30pm televised slot for the party leader’s address on Saturday will become standard.

Though RTÉ’s decision to abandon the once much-prized slot ahead of the Nine O’Clock News has been made for this year only, it is understood that, in practice, it will no longer be available, even after the Covid-19 pandemic has passed.

In April, RTÉ said it had offered all of the parties the option to have the leaders’ addresses carried on RTÉ One and RTÉ News channel between 5pm and 5.30pm, along with streaming on online platforms.

“This will allow RTÉ to provide a secure studio back-up in the event of any technical issues. It is envisaged the opening will be a brief introduction to the programme before taking a ‘live feed’ of the speech,” RTE said.

Mr Varadkar’s opening speech on Tuesday will focus on the North and party sources have said it will be strong in terms of policy lines. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney will also speak on the big issues around Northern Ireland, principally Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol and the challenges facing the institutions following the resignation of former DUP leader Arlene Foster.

The theme of the conference is on ensuring Ireland emerges safely and successfully from the pandemic while embracing changes.

In an address on the “Clár” for the árdfheis, the new general secretary John Carroll has said that rather than having everything “packed into a hectic and intense Saturday, this year’s events will be spread over a number of evenings and a more relaxed Saturday”.

The sessions on the non-Covid issues have potential for some conflict between competing interests. For example, while the party has committed to the programme for government pledge to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the motions on agriculture focus largely on protecting agriculture and farming impact.

Several motions call on the new Common Agriculture Policy to recognise the efforts which have been made by farmers. Another motion, from Co Clare, calls for a review into An Taisce and its statutory role in the planning process. It argues against what it describes as An Taisce’s “impact on efforts to secure the sustainable future of Irish agriculture”.

The environmental and heritage organisation was recently at the centre of controversy following its decision to appeal a planning decision in favour of a €140 million cheese factory in Co Kilkenny to the Supreme Court.

Dublin Bay South byelection candidate James Geoghegan features prominently in the public sessions, including on Friday night when he, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister of State Damien English discuss the future for workers and business in the wake of the pandemic.

With the writ to be moved for the byelection on Wednesday, Cllr Geoghegan is also likely to participate in that evening’s online session.

Other sessions include a panel discussion on youth unemployment, remote working and balanced regional development, on housing, on modern election campaigning, and on justice and equality.

The motions on party policy include a call to retain the corporation tax at 12.5 per cent; full voting rights to individual members on any future programme for government; a moderated online forum for discussion on policy; and for maternity leave, and parental leave, for politicians.