Miriam Lord: Martin entices middle back to FF sandwich

Golden oldies and optimistic youth pack hall but middle cohort not much in evidence

In the full and plenty days there was always a generous helping of meat in the middle of the FF sandwich. It sustained the party, helping it become strong and exceedingly plump.

Then the middle started feeling the squeeze. Tighter and tighter, until it suffered enough to earn its own classification: The Squeezed Middle.

They formed a big part of a contemptuous electorate that knocked the stuffing out of the party in the last election, preferring Fine Gael and Labour's bumper offering (with a substantial dollop of Sinn Féin on the side.)

Suddenly, the rich filling in Fianna Fáil’s sandwich was gone, leaving behind a thin smear of some vague class of protein.


The compressed centre. Loyal to the last.

Since then, Micheál Martin has been working hard to rebuild the brand. But that important bit in the middle was still looking very stingy at the ardfheis on Saturday.

He got a great crowd in for his keynote speech. They were queuing up for the best seats a good two hours in advance of the doors opening and quickly packed out the main auditorium in the RDS.

These were the bread-and-butter people. The two sides of the FF sandwich. Lots of young people with very white teeth, optimism and university hair.

Lots and lots of the golden years brigade with gold chain handbags, war stories and hugger-mugger paunches. All very enthusiastic.

But that vital ingredient in between? Not so much in evidence.

It was left to current parliamentary party stalwarts such as Éamon Ó Cuív, Willie O'Dea, Terry Leyden and the ever-popular Dooley-Kelleher twins, Bimmy and Tilly, to put the ham into the FF sandwich.

Nevertheless, as the economy picks up and the pressure eases a little on the squeezed middle, Fianna Fáil is hoping some of that constituency might drift back to the fold.

To that end, the ardfheis was largely an exercise in firing up the remaining troops to make them battle-ready for the campaign of persuasion to come.

Micheál wants them to bring home the bacon.

The content of his speech and its potential impact on voters may have been the media’s main interest, but for headquarters the impact of its contents on party members in the hall was every bit as important – if not more so.

The slightly relaxing middle

With a general election on the horizon, these are the people they hope will go out and knock on doors to spread Micheál’s message of a new Fianna Fáil to the slightly relaxing middle.

This explained his subtle (as in the references to his party’s commitment to upholding the noble ideals of republicanism) and not-so-subtle (“a sinister movement founded 40 years ago” which “covers-up the sickest of crimes in order to protect their members”) references to Sinn Féin.

In recent months the Fianna Fáil leader has maintained a constant attack on Sinn Féin. He hasn’t held back.

But some observers say this ongoing negative concentration on a rival party could prove counterproductive. Right on cue on keynote night, the latest opinion poll landed with a slight 1 per cent gain for FF and an encouraging 5 per cent boost for SF.

As it turned out, Micheál changed tack slightly on Saturday, devoting a very small part of his speech to Sinn Féin. But he made good use of a few paragraphs in the closing minutes to excoriate Sinn Féin and that party’s claims to have links with 1916.

“We will never allow them to rewrite Irish history to legitimise their despicable crimes.”

To shouts of “Hear! Hear!”, the audience rose to its feet and noisily applauded in what was easily the most heartfelt and passionate ovation of the night.

Does that sort of stuff play with the wider public? Maybe, maybe not. But it sure gets the grassroots going.

And those leaflets won’t deliver themselves.

But back to the missing middle. Which wasn’t just the party faithful.

When Fianna Fáilers gather these days, the unpleasantness of the pre-contrition era overshadows future plans for the nation. But they try not to mention it.

This time, Micheál Martin tried to turn Fianna Fáil’s failures to his advantage.

“It is exactly because we understand the mistakes of the past that, unlike others, we are determined that these mistakes will not be repeated.”

In other words, we drove the car off the cliff but at least we know how to steer clear of it now.

He also squeezed out middle history, giving us his Fianna Fáil with its “republican vision of a state which serves all its people and all its communities” and then harking back to the visionary Fianna Fáil of de Valera, Lemass and Lynch.

Haughey got a look in. But it was Cllr Seán Haughey, who featured in a roll call of descendents of 1916 heroes as grandson of Seán Lemass (“in the GPO at 16 years of age.”)

Seán is hoping to get a party nomination to run for the Dáil again. Senator Mary White already has one and is campaigning furiously. Her customised electric Renault was parked outside the RDS, painted bright block colours with a large photo of Mary along the side with the modest slogan: "Inspiring Hope."

Another confirmed candidate is former TD Bobby Aylward, who is running in next month's Carlow-Kilkenny byelection. Bobby rather bucks the headquarters' preference for fresh-faced young fellas and attractive blondes.

They don’t look like they’d be at home giving a team talk to the Glengooley juvenile hurlers before the county final. Bobby does.

His election video, We're Backing Bobby, aired before the main event.

Young Bobby (60) wants to see Fianna Fáil return to its grassroots and hopes to lead us out of recession.

“The future is young people,” he announced to the camera.

‘Lovely Girls’ competition

Those young people were very much in demand with the politicians for photo ops. Willie O’Dea linked arms with

Lisa Chambers


Mary Byrne

and waltzed them down the green carpet.

There was a mortifying touch of the “Lovely Girls” competition to the event.

Meanwhile, Cllr Jack Chambers was chosen to deliver the warm up speech for his leader, cementing his position as the party's freshly-anointed "Lovely Lad".

In a generous nod to the other side of the FF sandwich, the heat in the RDS blasted away all day at retirement home levels.

The speech was followed by the traditional rush to the platform by the front bench. In a novel twist this year, young Bobby Aylward was shot from a canon, thus ensuring he reached his leader’s shoulder first for the all-important closing television shots.

“Let Bobby in there, lads!” hissed Micheál to the advancing TDs.

And young Aylward, who knows the value of a daycent sangwidge, flew straight down the middle.

He’s hot favourite to take the seat.

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord is a colour writer and columnist with The Irish Times. She writes the Dáil Sketch, and her review of political happenings, Miriam Lord’s Week, appears every Saturday