Miriam Lord: Varadkar’s speech was like a Hobbit’s front door – very low key
Going forward was thrust forward quite a lot in a speech which was not backward about coming forward
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addresses the delegates. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Thrilled delegates knew they were in for a white-knuckle ride when Simon Coveney almost fist-bumped Regina Doherty onstage and then gingerly punched the air before inciting the Fine Gael mob to act like hooligans.
The headline act was about to explode upon their ardfheis and the Tearaway Tánaiste wanted the crowd to make some noise.
“In six minutes’ time,” he tantalised, “our party leader and our Taoiseach will walk to this stage.”
Leo taking himself forward, in tune with the theme of the day.
The country would be watching.
“I know that this party has a reputation for being polite and mannerly and a little contained sometimes at events like this one,” devil-may-care Coveney told the crowd. “But not today, please! I am asking you to make a statement, to be heard, to let people know how united and strong we are as a political party right now behind Leo Varadkar.”
There was a brief, polite pause and then the inflamed foot soldiers burst into a frenzy of genteel clapping. Guests in the diplomatic seating area were worried in case the rabble-rousing Minister for Foreign Affairs might start wrecking the gaff. But Simon settled down and there was no need to call security.
Due to upstaging issues, seconds in command don’t often do the wind-up speech for party leaders. They are too far up the pecking order, too close to the crown. Somebody who won’t thieve some shine from the star – usually an up-and-coming candidate or a knockabout crowd favourite – is chosen.
On Saturday night, the former rivals for the country’s top job stood together, recast as Ireland’s Brexit warriors.
“We work together night and day to protect Ireland,” Coveney declared, just in time for the live TV broadcast and the showcasing of the wonderful Two Ts to a national audience.
A wide black curtain was pulled back to allow Leo make his entrance from the back of the hall. They had to do this because after Simon’s podium paean (tough, calm, intelligent, educated, ambitious, compassionate, generous, change maker), Leo couldn’t fit his head though the double doors.
He got a tremendous reception as he did some minor flesh pressing on his way to the stage, the Kongos song “Come With Me Now” pulsating from the sound system.
“Woah come with me now
I’m gonna take you down
Woah come with me now
I’m gonna show you how”
As you do.
Some bright spark put a joke early on in the script. It involved using one of the props – “ordinary” party members sitting woodenly in long rows behind the Taoiseach who had, apparently, asked him questions earlier which he would address in the speech. This was a way of getting over the makey-up “I met a man out along the road who told me . . .”
These people had names, and when Leo mentioned them he swivelled his head towards the props to indicate that Tom or Lynda or Vera or whoever actually existed, and was there among them.
Lorraine, it seems, wanted to know about extending the Confidence and Supply deal with Fianna Fáil.
“I told her the truth. I said it’s not easy negotiating with the Fianna Fáil front bench,” said Leo, winding up for the big punchline.
“Just ask Micheál Martin!”
We feared we might suffocate in tumbleweed but a person began to clap, very loudly, and everyone joined in. Or at least that part of the hall which wasn’t wiped out by the lead balloon which was falling on them.
The Taoiseach was clear Fine Gael would not go down the populist road of other parties by buying votes with all sorts of expensive promises like tax cuts and the like. Then he promised he would get middle income earners out of the top tax bracket and make sure more of them qualify for childcare subsidies.
“As they should . . . They’re worth it! You’re worth it!”
People may scoff and say that money should be used for far more pressing causes, but we noticed one of the private security men in the black bomber jackets standing at his position, hands held low, enthusiastically applauding.
It certainly went down well with the crowd.
Going forward was thrust forward quite a lot in a speech which was not backward about coming forward. It will come as no surprise that “Taking Ireland Forward Together” is Fine Gael’s new off-the-shelf slogan, from the clunky and unoriginal side of the marketing aisle.
Did the Yanks see them coming and sell it to the party? Taking Ireland For . . . a ride? A fool? A small fortune? Hours of happy slogan and poster vandalising in prospect here.
There was also a strangely jarring American word in Leo’s speech when he told the nation “Only Fine Gael can be trusted to protect your job, your pocketbook and your pension.”
Then again, everyone knows Fine Gael ladies keep their pocketbooks in their fanny packs beside their cellphones.
All in all it was a Hobbit’s front door of a speech – very low key.
He isn’t a great speaker. If he was, Simon would have said it. But the delegates loved him, and he made up for his flat address by staying behind on stage for the best part of an hour posing for photographs with delegates.
But the evening was rescued in style by the big screen in the Ballroom and a memorable rugby match. Leo was among cheering delegates urging on the home team to a memorable win over the All-Blacks. An elated crowd left Citywest in buoyant mood, all keyed up and ready for action.
Heading home happy and sweatin’, even if the man who was supposed to do it wasn’t responsible. That doesn’t matter, Leo was exalted by association. A lucky general, along with everything else.
Earlier in the day, for the benefit of party members and not for general release, a spoof video of various Ministers trying to be funny was aired.
It was an entertainingly awful “spin the wheel” game where Cabinet members answered light-hearted questions. The whole farrago took place with whacky sit-com music running in the background.
“Are you ready to play the game?” the Minister for Justice was asked.
“I’m ready to roll . . .,” answered Charlie Flanagan, perpetrating a mortifying thumbs up.
Then Heather Humphreys spun the wheel unenthusiastically.
“What item did Leo Varadkar famously put in the dishwasher in 2017?”
“A SPUUUUN!” replied Heather.
What did the Tánaiste have to promise his five-year-old daughter to make sure she would greet Pope Francis?
“A kitten. A live one. It’s known as The Holy Spirit in our house,” replied Coveney.
One viewer said his toes were curling so much he could scratch his arse with his foot.
As soon as Leo left the stage, his team sent an email to all his subscribers.
“I’ve just finished. Can you help?”
Where to start . . .