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Miriam Lord: Harris’s first ardfheis as leader hears You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet ... a promise or a threat?

Faces from Fine Gael’s past and present line out for party’s annual gathering but the time for big talk by the incoming taoiseach is over

There was an unexpectedly subtle twist to the always mortifying spectacle of the conference hall bounce-in when Simon Harris embraced tradition and rapturous delegates on his way to the platform.

As the Fine Gael leader ran the usual gauntlet of over-effusive greeters and exaggerated embracers, a familiar opening riff blasted from the speakers.

But what was that tune?

Dum. Dum Dum, it looped. Dum. Dum Dum.


These were the opening chords to Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet – a knowing musical lean-in to the new leader’s cheesy declaration in the dizzy aftermath of his recent coronation.

And, perhaps, an indication that young Simon is tapped into the cultural zeitgeist with this 1970s rock classic.

Or maybe not.

We never got to the opening lines: “I met a devil women. She took my heart away . . .”

This was wise as it will have been construed by some in the hall as a reference to Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, the new darling of the Blueshirt delegates who is now packaged as a tough-as-nails political operator and a woman not to be trifled with.

“I wouldn’t like to be anyone in Sinn Féin taking on Jennifer,” exclaimed Helen McEntee, speaking in front of a backdrop featuring her own name followed by one word: “Minister”. This will have come as a comfort to the current holder of the justice portfolio in these days of Cabinet uncertainty.

Mind you, when Carroll MacNeill and her fellow Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton took to the platform they were accorded the same one word title.

The tantalising wait for Tuesday, when a freshly installed taoiseach Harris announces his new ministerial line-up, added spice to Fine Gael’s ardfheis this year. Who gets what and who gets the chop is always a fun way to pass the hours between workshop attendance and visits to the bar.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet – is it a promise or a threat? One thing is for sure, it’s the truth.

We haven’t seen anything yet.

That’s the test for Simon Harris – the time for big talk is over.

He will become the Yeti (Youngest Ever Taoiseach of Ireland). If he delivers on his promises, the highly-ambitious Harris could be the Goat (Greatest Of All Time).

He made a start on Saturday night in Galway, in a hall which could have been bigger but the ardfheis was arranged well before Leo Varadkar’s shock resignation and the Yeti’s surprise accession.

There was no doubt, in the tight confines of the Bailey Allen Hall – where it was standing room only for the leader’s inaugural keynote address and at least one person fainted in the crush of members waiting to get in to hear it, that the arrival of the effervescent Harris was a cause for celebration.

Not least for former TD Kate O’Connell, who sought a low-key return to the party fold by wildly hugging the man who took over from Leo Varadkar while quivering, with the minimum of melodramatics, that Leo’s departure marked the end of a “dark chapter” for her.

She stressed to journalists that Saturday was not about her and all about Simon. The photos were lovely, though.

The soon to be former Taoiseach arrived midafternoon and was warmly welcomed by delegates. For a man who is known to be awkward on big crowd occasions and on what could have been a very awkward occasion for him personally, Varadkar played it very well.

A dignified presence – there to the last to support his successor but not trying to steal any of his thunder.

Varadkar arrived with his arm in a sling due to a recurring elbow injury. Politicians at his level need very strong elbows. As the events of recent weeks have shown, he doesn’t have them. And he had the courage to admit it.

Speaking of elbows, EU Commissioner Mairéad McGuinness attended in a private capacity – there are strict rules governing commissioners and party political events. She was in great form, ceding MC duties to McEntee before taking to the platform to introduce the taoiseach-in-waiting on his big night.

Doing the final warm-up speech is quite the honour, although Mairéad kept the gags and digs to a minimum, possibly because Carroll MacNeill had delivered them all during her knockabout routine.

Some observers thought that her accent sounded a bit more Dublin city than South County at some points during her routine. There was even the odd “Jaysus” thrown in.

If JCMN’s high profile was an indication of future preference, then Hildegarde Naughton must be nursing high expectations too. She was also on the warm-up running list and figured prominently in proceedings.

Meanwhile, Westmeath TD Peter Burke, another favourite for a Cabinet seat, kept a lower profile. Although the bould Jennifer couldn’t speak highly enough of him during an afternoon session on Ireland in a Changing World.

Is Peter a busy junior minister for Europe?

“Peter Burke is representing Ireland at every time of the day and week,” she said. “On a plane for Ireland at Ridiculous O’Clock ... Peter Burke is at it night and day for Ireland.”

Not to be outdone, Hildegarde was on the radio telling the people of Ireland “The energy is palpable across the campus.”

Because, of course, “A New Energy” was the theme of this ardfheis, from the leader down.

“Not even Storm Kathleen could hold us back,” trilled McEntee.

The media had been tipped off about two special guests at the Blueshirt jamboree. None other than former taoiseach Enda Kenny and former EU commissioner Phil Hogan, who has never forgiven Varadkar and his deputy leader Simon Coveney for not backing him when he came under pressure from Ursula von der Leyen following his cameo role in the Golfgate saga.

Leo and Simon watched from the front row – both no longer in power.

Big Phil, now coining it in the consultancy world, watched from a few rows back. He would be happy with the talk that he had a hand in Simon’s swift and clinical ascent to the top.

Unlike others on the comeback trail, he kept a low profile but still caused quite a stir when he was spotted among the members of the diplomatic corps filing to their reserved seats before the leader’s speech. Every so often, the camera cut away to one particular section of the audience.

“There he is. Lookit. There’s Phil Hogan. That’s him alright – sure I can see the big head of him there,” said a man sitting behind us to his pal.

Varadkar’s speech was done and dusted in less than 10 minutes. “When I was down, you were always there to raise me up,” he told the delegates, channelling his inner Westlife.

The Mayor of Galway, Eddie Hoare, welcomed everyone to the city. “I think it’s fair to say that the west is certainly awake!” he cried, showing no ill-effects from staying up all night to come up with such an original one-liner.

Mayo’s Alan Dillon, another young TD mentioned as a possibility for the Harris Honours List, wasn’t much better. “Storm Harris is brewing,” he declared. “I can certainly feel it.”

If fell to the former Mayo footballer to introduce Enda: “a man who promised to electrify the party”.

Of course, there is a new energy now.


A huge cheer went up and there he was, their Inda, on video all the way from New Zealand.

“This is not about Simon Harris. This is about you,” he roared.

“Yes!” shouted Kate O’Connell. “Yes!” Although we might have imagined that.

“Rise up,” exhorted Inda.

“G’wan!” roared somebody near the front of the hall but not Phil Hogan.

“We did it before. Let’s do it again!”

And he was gone. The grassroots were in ferment.

And finally, the man of the hour. The new leader of Fine Gael and the next taoiseach, Simon Harris.

In the good suit, gleaming white shirt and Statesman cufflinks. Was that a hint of eyeliner? A touch of foundation to soften his somewhat pale pallor?

The children at home must have been confused – the family movie Hotel Transylvania 3 was delayed for half an hour to accommodate live coverage from Galway.

Harris’s speech hit all the required marks. He’s hardly been in the job a wet weekend so some allowances may have been allowed for delivery, but after a slightly nervous start, the fast-talking taoiseach to be got into his stride and gave the faithful in the hall what they wanted to hear.

The sort of red meat from ardfheiseanna past, from tax cuts to support for small business to improvements in health and disability services.

There was also a promise to build 250,000 new houses in five years, which is quite the undertaking.

Much of what Harris said will have resonated with the people at home too – if only he can deliver the goods. The farming community was cherished and the leader recommitted his party as the one of law and order.

Simon, still clearly getting a kick from doing the two hands raised leadership gesture from the platform, got a tumultuous reception at the end of his speech.

First up to congratulate him was Hildegarde, who hurdled her way to Simon’s side like one of Nina Carberry’s former mounts. Nina, a former National Hunt champion, is running for Europe.

She was joined by MEP Sean Kelly, who is a master at stage-hopping and shoulder-hugging. Then Leo stepped up, smiling, but keeping to the back of the ever-increasing throng of politicians onstage.

It was like the good old days – not that anyone would have the temerity to say that to almost former Taoiseach Varadkar, who preferred a different, more diffident style of leadership. The crowd applauded him when he left the building.

And the party continued in the nearby Galmont Hotel. Something to enjoy, however fleetingly, for a party under pressure in the polls but now with a new sense of energy of purpose.

The last of three major speeches for Simon Harris will be on Tuesday in the Dáil, when he takes over as taoiseach.

He ain’t seen nuttin’ yet.

Mr Waffle on the corner ...

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