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election mode

8 things we learned at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis

As expected, there’s been new policies … and more in-fighting.

ABOUT 3,000 of Fianna Fáil’s 20,000 members attended the party 76th Ard Fheis at the RDS this weekend.

After the drubbing it received in the 2011 general election, the members are trying to rebuild. Fianna Fáil is now the biggest party in local government, but some members are unhappy at the pace at which renewal is happening.

So, what did we learn over the course of the weekend?

1. Fianna Fáil does not want to join forces with Fine Gael

Delegates voted to rule out going into coalition with Fine Gael, or as a junior partner in any scenario.

The motions are not binding, however – which might be for the best given the fact only 20 or so people were present to vote.

Speaking after the motion was passed, party leader Micheál Martin said: “We haven’t had a general election, we have to fight the election.”

During his closing address, Martin took aim at Fine Gael and Labour, saying their policies have “hammered” families who can least afford it and led to the country ”becoming more divided and more unjust”.

2. The party likes Sinn Féin even less

Sinn Fein Gay Marriage Equality Referendums Gerry Adams Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Martin saved a special level of criticism for Sinn Féin, saying Gerry Adams’ party is an “even worse” option.

In the Republic they promise everything to everybody, while in the North they are implementing savage cuts which will decimate public services.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out once the general election takes place.

In relation to Northern Ireland, delegates called for “an all-island inquiry into outstanding allegations of sexual abuse that were not dealt with by the proper authorities both North and South but instead dealt with by Kangaroo courts”.

Members also backed a motion that condemns the punishment beatings that are still occurring in the North and calls for immediate action from the Northern Executive to prevent them.

3. John McGuinness won’t stay quiet

The chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has broken ranks yet again to criticise the party.

John McGuinness at Committees John McGuinness Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Earlier today, McGuinness told the Irish Independent the party had rushed out policies ahead of the Ard Fheis.

When questioned about this, Martin quipped that Fianna Fáil were making progress if they had “gone from no policies to rushing them out”.

He did, however, praise McGuinness for doing good work with PAC.

Barry Cowen was less forgiving, saying the parliamentary party would deal with his overly-vocal colleague.

Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley were also critical of McGuinness in a panel discussion on Saturday with Claire Byrne earlier today.

4. If they return to power, Fianna Fáil will be VERY busy

The party has lashed out a series of policies in the last week or so and there were more at the Ard Fheis this weekend – on housing, childcare and measures to help small businesses – which would cost over €1 billion to implement.

That’s good for a party that has been often criticised for not having any over the last four years, but it’s hard to escape that McGuinness may have had a point: it was all somewhat rushed.

Ultimately, the party would have been far better gradually releasing policy documents over the last four years to craft an identity for itself.

The main problem facing Fianna Fáil is setting out what it stands for. That’s still not clear and won’t become any clearer by dropping a load of policies in the year leading up to the election. The next 10 months will be crucial to setting out what exactly distinguishes Fianna Fáil from all the others in voters’ minds.

5. Cute babies still provide a good photo opportunity 

Fianna Fail 9795 copy Micheál Martin with seven-month-old Kitty Lee Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

… as does Willie O’Dea

76ArdFheis-44 Fianna Fail member Mary Byrne, TD Willie O'Dea and Vice President Lisa Chambers Conor McCabe Conor McCabe

6. We need to talk about age

The age-profile at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis is different to any other party’s annual gathering. While there was a certain youthful vibrancy at the Sinn Féin’s weekend in Derry last month, Fianna Fáil undoubtedly commands a significant number of older members, who turned out in force this weekend.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, but it highlights the difficulty the party has in attracting younger members.

They’re definitely there and Fianna Fáil has a good number of talented young councillors, candidates and ordinary members but they’ll need a lot more to shake the image of a party whose best days are arguably behind it.

jackchambers-1-310x415 Jack Chambers

One of those flying the youth flag for the party is councillor and Dublin West general election candidate Jack Chambers, who gave the warm-up speech ahead of Martin’s closing address.

7. Members don’t want to change the party’s position on abortion

The majority of a group of 30-40 members voted to maintain the party’s position of not repealing the 8th amendment of the constitution.

In a recurring theme of the weekend, some delegates complained that motions including this one were delayed and voted on well after the surrounding debate, and by a very small percentage of the party’s members.

The 8th amendment states:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

Prior to the vote being cast on this motion, Kildare member DJ Moore told delegates it does not rule out allowing terminations in certain circumstances but does reaffirm Fianna Fáil’s position as “pro-life”.

Again, the vote is not binding.

8. The party doesn’t want a new leader yet … but members want more say in electing the next one

A few hundred delegates voted though a significant change in the way Fianna Fáil’s selects its next leader by introducing an electoral college system for future leadership elections.

The changes dilute the power of the parliamentary party, which previously had all the say. There was some quite justified disquiet that very few of the thousands of delegates who attended this weekend were actually voting on the issue, but it passed overwhelmingly.

It means that ordinary members will account 45% of the vote in a leadership election, TDs will have 40%, and other elected representatives will have 15%.

Most modern political parties have this system and it means Fianna Fáil will likely avoid those infamous scenes at Leinster House in the 1980s when Charlie Haughey managed to avoid several attempts to overthrow him.

Martin backed the motion, saying it had been two years in the making.

- with contribution from Hugh O’Connell

Originally published: 22.00, 25 April 

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