FINE GAEL MEMBERS gathered for the final time before the general at Citywest on the outskirts of Dublin this weekend.
Thousands of delegates heard from ministers, TDs and candidates before Taoiseach Enda Kenny delivered his televised address earlier tonight, urging voters to back his party.
Though he did not reveal a date for the general election, we did learn a few things over the course of the two-day event.
1. There’s a new ‘Five Point Plan’
Except this time it’s called the ‘Long Term Economic Plan’. In 2011, Enda Kenny’s ad nauseam pledge may have had people rolling their eyes but it did the electoral job. Five years later, it’s still about a plan, but this time it’s about longevity.
The slogan was on the lips of more than just the Taoiseach with all members obviously briefed to keep on message. It was bested only by the line which you should expect to see coming to a lamppost near you soon.
Enda Kenny had 10 ‘keep the recovery going’-s in under 15 minutes in his opening address on Friday night and said it nine times in his speech tonight.
2. No one wanted to be here
A lot of those we spoke to who are running for election or re-election would have preferred to have been back in their constituency knocking on doors. In fact, many rural TDs only came up today and didn’t plan on staying the night, keen to squeeze in as much canvassing as possible either side of the Ard Fheis.
One told us how they’d be making the three-and-a-bit hour journey home right after Kenny’s speech in the hope of getting last orders at their local. For Fine Gael members, these gatherings are good for morale and catching-up with friends and colleagues, but as many a TD and candidate remarked:
There are no votes here.
3. Micheál on my mind
For a period last year, Enda Kenny was framing the election as a choice between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. There’s no doubt that pretence has now been dropped.
Barely a speech went by without members lining up to attack Fianna Fáil this weekend. Right from the Taoiseach’s opening address on Friday, it was clear who the party sees as the main threat to its vote.
Kenny didn’t directly mention Sinn Féin in his opening address but Fianna Fáil was littered all over it. He wasn’t the only one either as Fine Gael’s economics-heavy pledge pitch was regularly couched in opposition to Fianna Fáil’s “disastrous” plan.
4. 1916 has them sounding a little defensive
While Sinn Féin mightn’t have been the main target of Fine Gael’s attacks on economics, Gerry Adams’s party took a barrage of shots as Ard Fheis delegates discussed 1916. Sinn Féin was accused of hijacking the Rising, the flag and republicanism as Fine Gael members defended the State’s plans for 1916 commemorations.
The party drafted in Trinity Professor Patrick Geoghegan to tell a receptive audience that Sinn Féin have no direct link to the rising and there was much talk of ‘reclaiming’ legacies.
In yesterday’s The Irish Times, former Fine Gael leader John Bruton questioned the Defence Forces going to schools for 1916 commemorations. This initiative was defended by several speakers during the course of an ‘Ireland 2016’ debate. Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd called it “only right and correct”.
One speaker from the floor told the audience that the 1916 had ‘no mandate’ and that remembering it as the foundation of the State is wrong. While the viewpoint is perhaps not a widespread one, it does show that the party is, to an extent, divided on exactly how it should feel about the Rising.
5. Don’t rock the boat
None of the motions debated over the course of the two days mentioned anything substantial on social issues. While the Eighth Amendment may be a central question for a significant section of voters, it was not part of the debate here this weekend.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) had a busy stall at the conference and its director Orla O’Connor told us that, while she wasn’t surprised it wasn’t being discussed, she feels that senior party members, and Enda Kenny in particular, need to make their position clear.
What’s perhaps more surprising is that there wasn’t a wide trumpeting of the party’s main social achievement in passing the marriage equality referendum. It warranted just four words in Enda Kenny’s closing address. While such issues may exercise social activists, it seems that Fine Gael is playing to a wider audience and talking about the economy, stupid.
6. Enda’s the leader but he’s not the darling
He’s the oldest member of the outgoing Dáil and the grá for Michael Noonan is strong among his party colleagues. The Finance Minister certainly blushed and even seemed to get a little misty-eyed as he was love-bombed by some of his peers this afternoon.
Dublin South-Central TD Catherine Byrne started the love-in by exclaiming that he is the only politician she is truly ‘devoted’ to. Byrne said that Noonan had dragged the country by “the scruff of the neck through some tough times” and the crowd rose to its feet to applaud their former leader.
MEP Mairead McGuinness even gave him a kiss and Noonan seemed overwhelmed by the attention. His speech, although firmly on message, was a perhaps a little uneventful considering the build-up. Nearly 35 years a TD, Noonan isn’t going anywhere yet despite his recent health problems and it seems he’ll be the darling of his colleagues as long as he sticks around.
7. Charities got a break
There was quite the reaction to our story yesterday on Fine Gael charging charities to exhibit at the Ard Fheis:
But we heard today from some exhibitors that we spoke to that the expensive extras – €16.50 for a bin is just one example – weren’t so expensive after all with tables and and chairs being laid on for them by the hotel at no cost.
8. A quiet confidence
There was fire in the bellies of Fianna Fáil’s members leaving Citywest after Micheál Martin’s rousing speech last weekend. By contrast, this was a more reserved affair with Fine Gael keen to exude a quiet confidence that it’s going well, but there must be no slip ups.
Even Kenny’s televised speech was low-key and not the sort of battlecry you’d expect from a party leader going into an election campaign.
The constant repetition of “keep the recovery going” is typical of the caution with which Fine Gael is approaching this election, knowing it’s all about hammering home the message.
The polls indicate that it hasn’t hit home with enough voters yet for the government to be re-elected. As the Fine Gael faithful return to their constituencies they’ve a job on their hands to change that in the coming weeks.
- with contributions from Hugh O’Connell