Miriam Lord: Wild weekend in Wexford as Fine Gael party meets hen party

The conference at the Clayton Hotel was livened up by a gaggle of hooting bridesmaids

Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar TD set out five themes for the party at their annual conference, a strong economy; inclusion; infrastructure projects; a stronger foreign policy, and the environment and climate change. Video: Fine Gael

 

Most unusually, the stage was a slogan-free zone when the Taoiseach delivered his televised conference address.

All the more so because the party seemed very keen to promote a particular message on Saturday night, and that message would have fitted very snugly onto the front of Leo Varadkar’s minimalist lectern.

“Fine Gael – Martyrs to the Brexit.”

But they soldier on.

The atmosphere in Wexford was not entirely political. As conference weekends go, this one was half Fine Gael party, half hen party. The hotel bar was a mix of leaflet-pushing election hopefuls, networking TDs looking for notice, delegates stalking Ministers and totteringly tipsy women held upright by helium balloons.

By the end of day two in the Clayton Hotel nobody would have blinked had Simon Coveney performed the introduction in a “Leo’s Final Fling” T-shirt with “Fine Gael – Mother of the Bride” on the plexiglass pulpit, the Taoiseach wearing an “I’m up for anything” badge and Paschal Donohoe wandering the platform topping up everyone’s Prosecco.

Every conference involving a political party should be shared with a hen party. Would liven things up no end.

Two-month-old Saoirse was happily snoozing when her dad lifted her up to show her off

Apart from the “Martyrs to the Brexit” missed opportunity, the unspoken slogan of the weekend couldn’t be displayed because there wasn’t enough room to squash “Fine Gael – Getting Ourselves on the Telly and in the Newspapers before the Local and European Elections ” into the TV shot.

And somebody decided not to run with the slogan much in evidence earlier in the day and which was on all the conference literature.

“Let’s take Ireland forward together.” Inspirational.

Implied threat

Unfortunately, it also contains an implied threat: Let us take Ireland forward together or we’ll bring it backwards on our own.

Two political stars (the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson and Manfred Weber, Jean-Claude Junker’s likely successor as president of the European Commission) were imported for the occasion, although they didn’t impress the hens, who found the whole carry-on a hoot and treated the passing political parade as extra entertainment. Some were briefly interested in the hullabaloo when Minister for Health Simon Harris arrived with his wife, Caoimhe, ostentatiously pushing their new baby in her buggy as the Fine Gael ladies swooned.

Two-month-old Saoirse was happily snoozing when her dad lifted her up to show her off. As soon as the baby saw the politicians she started to roar. She even had her own security lanyard, which Simon insisted on showing to everyone. It’ll be something special for Saoirse to treasure and disown in her teenage years.

At the end of his contribution, Donaldson of the DUP spoke about the possibility of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth. Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd, sitting beside him, wore the pained expression of a man trying to look pleasantly interested while desperately fighting the urge to violently break wind.

There was applause for Jeffrey, which led to a row between media observers and Fine Gael loyalists over the nature of Donaldson’s Clap. Was it merely a normal courteous response to his speech or the manifestation of a deeper longing for Commonwealth recognition?

The Tánaiste was tackled on the subject when he trotted into the hotel courtyard to show off Manfred to the media, a couple of hens wearing pink sashes tagging along for the sport.

“I think that what you saw in the meeting, to be honest, was [delegates] wanting to show some warmth towards Geoffrey Donaldson,” said Simon Coveney.

Breakaway group

Meanwhile, a breakaway group of hens had retreated to a hotel room on one of the upper floors and some were laughing loudly out the window at the politicians and journalists below.

Manfred Weber is on his “listening tour” of Europe at the moment. He has a slogan too. “Let’s Do It Together”. Manfred stole his slogan from a hen party T-shirt.

It was a very serious media briefing in the hotel courtyard. Helen McEntee, our much-lauded Minister for Europe, was recognised by the hens. “Helen! Helen! Helen!” She looked mortified and insisted that the women were talking about the bride-to-be. Except her name was Angela.

There was some frenzied waving from the window as the politicians talked Brexit.

“Endorsement . . . ratification for withdrawal agreement in the future . . . new legal instrument . . .” went Simon.

“Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo! Hahahaha!”

“What we are trying to do is facilitate a window that everyone can live with.” More delighted squeals from above as someone appeared with a bottle of red.

“Reassurance. Irish border protocol. Uncertainly. All bets off.”

“Aaah-hahahahaaah! Helen! Helen! Woo-hoo!”

Manfred wasn’t expecting this on his listening tour. The hens went quiet, then returned to the window eating choc ices, before losing interest.

The main event had a cobbled-together air to it.

At ten to eight, out of the blue, former Rose of Tralee and European election candidate Maria Walsh announced: “I would invite you all to stand please for . . .” She paused. For what? Who?

The Ministers had been done up earlier for the cameras and were lined up in two rows like extras in a zombie movie

“Amhrán na bFhainn.”

The National Anthem boomed out from the speakers. (Fianna Fáil had a brass band).

Everyone stood up. Then everyone sat down.

Choral explosion

Helen McEntee introduced Manfred Weber. All of a sudden, an unexpected choral explosion blasted around the hall – Beethoven’s Ninth. Or a few bars of Ode to Joy, to be precise. Everyone stood up again. Manfred looked delighted.

Everyone sat down.

Maybe the Ministers looked great on the television. But they looked wretched in the flesh. They had been done up earlier for the cameras and were lined up in two rows like extras in a zombie movie. Charlie Flanagan was white as a ghost. Paschal Donohoe was deathly pale but with eyebrows found at the bottom of a coal scuttle and stuck on.

Heather Humphreys’s face and hair were almost transparent, but her cheekbones were slashed straight out of Boy George’s 1980s make-up box. Somebody had taken Simon Harris by the ankles and dipped the top of his head in shiny treacle. Seán Kyne was prematurely embalmed.

The Tánaiste introduced the Taoiseach as the best taoiseach ever, listing all his wonderful qualities. We were nearly crying by the time he finished, we felt so honoured. Leo returned the compliment, in spades, when his turn came.

The man himself appeared to the sounds of Take That.

“Never forget where you’ve come here from/Never pretend that it’s all real/Someday soon this will all be someone else’s dream.”

Happily, there were decent swipes at Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, upon whom Fine Gael is dependent to stay in power

They were going for peak humility. It was a bit confusing for the audience, who didn’t know how to respond when Leo said he doesn’t get everything right and had to take responsibility when things go wrong.

Happily, there were decent swipes at Sinn Féin (happier on social media than the partying hens because of the Commonwealth stuff and Donaldson’s Clap) and Fianna Fáil, upon whom Fine Gael is dependent to stay in power. Not that Leo seemed to care as he took out a pointy stick and began goading the party and its leader. Anybody would think he was trying to provoke Micheál into causing an election.

Then he unveiled his five steps to heaven, which have a definite bang of election about them. Not to be confused with Fine Gael’s famous Five-Point Plan, though. Although it can.

Leo got an ovation at the end. And more Take That music followed sedate congratulations from Simon, because Brexit is too serious and they’re all too exhausted for buck-leppin’.

Down in the bar, the same couldn’t be said for the hens.

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