IN CONTRAST TO other party conferences we’ve been to in recent weeks, there was a fair bit happening at this weekend’s 77th Fine Gael Ard Fheis.
Over 2,000 delegates descended on the RDS in south Dublin this weekend to debate and vote on dozens of motions ranging from cannabis legalisation to same-sex marriage to banning cigarette sales in pubs and supermarkets.
Here’s what else we learned this weekend…
1. Everyone loves Enda…
Fine Gael loves it’s leader. Okay, that’s no revelation but it was really evident his weekend. The splits that emerged during the attempted heave four years ago linger and always will, but the ordinary members were scrambling for pics and selfies with Enda who made himself available all weekend.
Party officials still try to stage-manage situations with the Taoiseach too much – such as when three young party members were strategically placed for the dear leader to come sit beside during Michael Noonan’s speech earlier – but there’s nothing stage-managed about Kenny’s engagement with people and particularly members of Fine Gael over the past two days.
2. … and Alan Shatter too
“Three cheers for Alan Shatter,” shouted an audience member during an awkward silence before the live broadcast of Enda Kenny’s keynote speech. The audience duly obliged. While he’s not the toast of the opposition parties right now, the Justice Minister attracted a huge amount of support from delegates this weekend.
All of which indicates that the GSOC/whistleblower controversies are not fundamentally damaging his position either in Fine Gael or, more importantly, in Cabinet. Shatter got a standing ovation after a speech during a session on transparency, accountability and justice and was mobbed by delegates on arrival at the RDS.
3. Fine Gael is unashamedly at war with big tobacco
There were a series of strong contributions to a debate on smoking on Friday night with members united in their view that cigarette companies are essentially evil and are targeting our children. One senator went as far as to say if she had her way she’d ban cigarettes and smoking altogether.
James Reilly has committed to eradicating smoking from Ireland on a more incremental basis and yesterday the party formally asked him to set up a working group to examine the possibility of banning cigarette sales in pubs, off licences, supermarkets and anywhere else that sells alcohol. Reilly’s very personal war on tobacco continues – and has strong Fine Gael support.
4. Tax cuts are on the way
Michael Noonan likes to go off-script and did so again today during his address to delegates, but his pre-prepared remarks contained a commitment to look at “targeted tax reductions’, presumably in the Budget next October.
“Tax cuts? Call me,” agriculture minister Simon Coveney probably wasn’t saying. [Pic: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland]
Later the Taoiseach said that easing the burden of taxation on working families “is a priority for government” – another clear indication of what’s on the way. The Fine Gael view is best summed-up by junior finance minister Brian Hayes who said the party needs to ensure “that we stop taxing the hell out people”.
Given the talk from both coalition parties in recent weeks, it’s now inconceivable that there won’t be a tax cut of some sort announced in Budget 2015.
5. Delegates loved a good selfie
Here are just three of many, many selfies taken at the RDS this weekend…
6. Fine Gael could contest elections in the North
Delegates passed a motion to set up a working group of politicians and rank and file members which will explore the possibility of contesting elections in Northern Ireland. The wording of the motion suggests that Fine Gael won’t be contesting elections across the border any time soon, but it’s an interesting idea.
“The distance between Kildare Street in Dublin and Kildare Street in Newry is 66 miles – it’s that short, it’s less than an hour,” the motion’s proposer, Feargal Crinion, told delegates this morning. “Another 40 miles, you’re up to Kildare Street in Belfast. Yes, 100 miles separates the two Kildare Streets.”
7. The party is proud of its female representation…
Fine Gael, as other parties have been doing, made sure that some of its young, local election candidates were showcased during the televised session on RTÉ earlier today. But all weekend the party was keen to emphasise that over 100 of its over 450 candidates are women.
Enda Kenny pictured with his daughter Aiobhinn (left) and his goddaughter Dervla Kenny at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis.
It’s the most of any party in the State although that’s not hard when you’re the biggest party in the State with the most money, and it’s worth nothing that it’s still short of the 30 per cent quota parties will be required to adhere to – or else face funding cuts – at the next general election.
8. … but its strategy in Ireland South has even the Taoiseach confused
Embarrassingly, Enda Kenny forgot to mention Deidre Clune when listing off the Fine Gael candidates running in the European elections. It’s even more awkward because the senator was standing right beside him as it happened.
But it also underscores the fact that many within the party believe the decision to run three candidates in Ireland South – incumbent Seán Kelly and TD Simon Harris are the others – is a mistake by the party leadership.
One party source described the loss of former IFA president John Bryan as potential candidate – he was put off by the three candidate strategy – as “a big f***-up”.
Pics: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland, Niall Carson/Brian Lawless/PA, and Twitter.