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Here are 8 things we learned at Enda's big homecoming shindig

The biggest party in the country gathered in the Taoiseach’s constituency this weekend and we learned a lot.

Fine Gael Conference. Pictured An Taoi Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

FINE GAEL GATHERED for its national conference in the Taoiseach’s hometown this weekend.

There was much made of Enda Kenny leading his party back to Castlebar almost four years to the day since he helped Fine Gael secure an historic election win.

The Royal Theatre, scene of that election success, provided the venue and here’s what we found out over the course of Friday and Saturday…

https://vine.co/v/OQqglAHq1Xl

1. Fine Gael: The party of the farmer… and rural Ireland 

Fianna Fáil might disagree, but Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said Fine Gael, more than any other party, looks out for the interests of farmers and truly is the party of rural Ireland.

Speaking to delegates on Friday night, Coveney said that the schemes he had overseen are not simply about paying farmers money, but investing in farming (though some would argue that’s the same thing).

That the Taoiseach was also able to announce that China will begin importing Irish beef again – a big boost for farmers to add to the recent lifting of the US ban.

Junior agriculture minister Tom Hayes (half) jokingly remarked to a sparsely populated agriculture session on Saturday afternoon that the lack of attendees was “a sure sign farmers are happy” under the current administration.

2. Enda has a television problem 

Traditionally the party leader will do a set piece interview with The Week in Politics on the Sunday after a conference, but Kenny isn’t on this occasion. Some speculated it was because he wanted to let his hair down on Saturday night having welcomed his party to his home town. Perhaps, but not doing the interview isn’t a bad thing.

Privately, a few parliamentary party members we spoke to over the weekend expressed misgivings about his performance on Thursday night’s Prime Time interview with Miriam O’Callaghan. A big complaint about Kenny is that he doesn’t do enough in-depth one-on-one interviews. But the problem is that when he does, he doesn’t come out of them particularly well. Not that he’s too fussed:

3. When Michael Noonan talks, everybody listens (but what about his health?)

The Finance Minister was given a standing ovation when he arrived for the televised session on Saturday morning, having been flown back from crunch Greece talks in Brussels.

Noonan had the audience captivated and listening intently as he explained how the government was fixing the economy and reducing the tax burden further. He was in great form:

His eye looks a little better than it did earlier in the week but the questions about his health – after his cancer scare last year – will not go away. Kenny declared himself happy with Noonan describing him as “a solid anchor” who has kept him informed “at all times of the progress and recovery that he is making in respect of his health.”

Fine Gael Conference - Securing The Re Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Noonan even appeared to be gearing up for another spell as finance minister if Fine Gael is re-elected, but joked that the Taoiseach “would have to be consulted”.

4. Leo hovers in the wings 

This was a fairly low-key national conference for the famously outspoken Health Minister but he gave an interesting speech to delegates in the health session. He revealed that some (unnamed) people had told him to shut up and stop being so honest about the state of the health service.

Fine Gael Conference. Pictured Ministe Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

He strayed away from his portfolio to launch a strong political attack on Gerry Adams, burnishing those leadership credentials a bit more. He didn’t hold back, claiming that Adams doesn’t use the health service in the north or south.

Instead, the Sinn Féin leader flew to the US for treatment. Then Varadkar had this stinger:

Delegates, Ireland does not need another Taoiseach who gets dig-outs from his friends when he skips the country. We need a Taoiseach who has faith and confidence in our own country. A true patriot like our Taoiseach, not a self-serving phoney like Mr Adams.

The idea of Leo the leader? It hasn’t gone away, you know.

Fine Gael Conference. Pictured An Taoi Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

5. We need to talk about Heather 

The Arts Minister had a baptism of fire with McNulty-gate and though she has remained relatively uncontroversial since, the government’s botched handling of the 1916 preparations (remember that video?) is coming under increasing scrutiny.

The minister put in an assured performance in a session on those very commemorations Though not everyone agreed with that verdict. Within Fine Gael’s own ranks, doubts remain about her suitability for cabinet.

6. Fine Gael is thinking beyond Labour… 

Fine Gael Conference - Crackdown On Cr Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Michael Noonan told Saturday with Claire Byrne that Fine Gael may “canvass the support of independents in the same policy space as ourselves” if Fine Gael/Labour were to fall short of the required seats to form a government after the election.

That looks a distinct possibility at the moment and it’s the first indicator of the party positioning itself and looking at how it can remain in government if the coalition falls short of a majority after the people have their say.

7. … and gearing up for the election 

Speaking of that election – which everyone is still insisting will be next year – Fine Gael is putting its preparations firmly in place in the coming weeks. Candidate selection conventions are due to take place across the country with the conventions kicking off in Meath East and Dublin Mid-West early next month.

There were plenty of councillors and hopeful candidates in attendance at the Royal Theatre this weekend but not all of them will be pleased when strategists begin to narrow down how many candidates Fine Gael can run in each constituency.

8. The protests never really materialised 

Anyone hoping for the same scenes that greeted Labour at its conference Galway in 2012 would have been sorely disappointed by the low turnout for a very peaceful anti-water charges protest in Castlebar today. They were vocal and had lots of placards and banners but there was only around 170 of them.

Meanwhile inside the venue, Dublin South-Central TD Catherine Byrne made a pointed dig at protesters in saying it was time to “take back our flag”. Her view was echoed by Arts Minister Heather Humphreys who said that “some have used our flag to portray a different message”.

Enda’s speech: “It’s about your right to say two small words, made up of three simple letters – I DO”

Leo: Some people told me to shut up and keep my head down

WTF: We spotted this quite bizarre Enda Kenny poster in Castlebar last night

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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