Miriam Lord: Ghost of Bertie apparent as tink-in season rolls round
Mercifully for the small band of media in Gorey, all the sessions were held in private
Micheál Martin at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting at the Ashdown Park Hotel, Gorey, Co Wexford. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
That dreaded week of the year when Bertie Ahern’s appalling legacy is dug up and endured by the political classes for the sake of a few photo opportunities and some cheap publicity is upon us again.
It’s tink-in time and it’s all Bertie’s fault.
In the late 1990s, the former taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader came up with the idea of bringing his troops together for a political bonding and policy planning session in advance of the autumn Dáil term. There would be a night away with optional heavy drinking, a convivial sing-song and at least one late-night altercation in the bar. Thoughts would be thunk, but in moderation.
In the space of a couple of years, all the political parties got in on the act. Now they feel obliged to continue with this annual ritual even though nobody is allowed to act the maggot any more, nothing of any import happens and the highlight of the event is the group photo, which means everyone can go home.
There was a reminder of the man who started it all in the car park of Gorey’s Ashdown Park Hotel at lunchtime on Tuesday when the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party giggled into the cameras at the merciful end of their arduous two half days of tinking.
A granite plaque on the wall marked the occasion in February 2002 when the then taoiseach officially opened the establishment. Back then, his minister for health was a fresh-faced 42-year-old by the name of Micheál Martin.
But look where he is now. Top of the world. Leader of a party trapped in a loveless relationship with a domineering other half, unable to leave because of “the crisis” and half-relieved it’s there as a backstop.
Funnily enough, Bertie was in the news too. When we heard what he said, we assumed he was waxing nostalgic about the glory days of the tink-ins and musing on the latest crop of political powerhouses exercising their brains away from the confines of Leinster House for the good of the party.
He talked about “four dozen cabbages”. Some people thought he was speaking about the movement of farm produce across the Border in the context of Brexit, but others think he was referring to the Fianna Fáil tink-in.
They may be right, although his numbers are way out.
It was day two in Wexford. Day one had been very quiet. The media mainly ignored Micheál and his troops in favour of Boris Johnson’s box office visit to Dublin. Fair play to the UK prime minister, helping out Leo Varadkar – a fellow conservative – by timing his trip to coincide with Fianna Fáil’s gig.
Then, in a further twist of bad luck, Phil Hogan got the big trade commissioner job in Brussels and took the political limelight away for a second time from the Soldiers of Destiny. Big Phil talking threateningly about future trade talks with the US as doing “a bit of ground hurling” with Donald Trump packs a far bigger punch than the Fianna Fáil leader beating the Minister for Health around the head with tales of his triumphs in that department back in 2004.
(Yes indeed, Micheál brought in the smoking ban back then, in case you hadn’t heard.)
He accused Simon Harris, whom Micheál thinks is incompetent and ineffective when viewed against his own achievements (when Simon was a 13-year-old), of fraudulently and deliberately underestimating the health budget and then bringing in “massive supplementaries” and “really enormous supplementaries” to cover the shortfall.
“We transformed cardiovascular care from 2000 to 2004,” Martin declared. Ditto with cancer control, stroke treatment, health infrastructure, not to mention “the smoking ban and so on”.
Micheál was unable to point to similar interventions from Simon Harris, or from Leo Varadkar when he was minister for health.
“I make no bones about it.”
Keeping Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael in power is Fianna Fáil’s selfless purgatory in the national interest. If it wasn’t for the Brexit threat and a commitment to pass next month’s budget, Micheál would be out the door and on the election trail with alacrity.
He has to contend with a Government that is “asleep at the wheel” despite Fianna Fáil’s best effort to kick-start some progress. And the Fine Gael administration hasn’t honoured a shedload of budget commitments it made last year.
But for all that, Micheál is forced to prop up Leo’s Government and his top team dutifully trotted off in the afternoon to open budget negotiations for next year with Paschal Donohoe.
Why do they even bother?
They bother because “it is in the national interest”.
Fianna Fáil held four one-hour policy sessions on Monday and three one-hour session on Tuesday. Hard to know which stood out as the most attractive option. Maybe Stephen Donnelly and Mary Butler talking about health on day one, and it was hard to pass Timmy Dooley expounding on climate change on day two.
Mercifully, all the sessions were held in private.
By all accounts, dinner on Monday night was lovely. The hotel claims to have the best steak in the world, sourced from its prize-winning farm. Afterwards there was a mini-exodus to a nearby pub. Three TDs were slinking in the direction of the Bridge Bar when Micheál, who is very health-conscious, approached them on his night-time constitutional.
The three lads decided to walk past the pub as their leader power-walked by them wearing runners, a training top and his suit trousers.
The most controversial happening of the two days centred on the upset among Bertie’s cabbages when they didn’t get biscuits at the tea-breaks. There was only fruit.
“We had a very good active session again this morning, beginning with the crisis in agriculture and particularly beef farming. Charlie McConalogue and Jackie Cahill gave us a very good presentation,” Micheál informed the small media contingent when matters hurtled to a sleepy close at lunchtime.
Suppose you had to be there.
It’s Sinn Féin’s turn next when they host an “away day” in Dundalk.
Thankfully, it’ll be over by the afternoon.