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It’s Fianna Fáil’s ardfheis, but everyone wants to play Simon Says

Party faithful just wanted to get on with their annual conference without having to talk about the new Taoiseach all the time

Fianna Fáil’s finest showed commendable patience in the face of intolerable intrusion from an unwanted guest.

The new Taoiseach wasn’t there in person, but his inescapable presence bugged the life out of his Government partners who wanted to get on with their annual conference without having to talk about him all the time.

They kept the eye-rolling to a minimum but ministerial resolve was sorely tested.



Because for 24 hours they were living next door to Harris.

Harris. Harris?

Who the feck is Harris?

Wait a minute. This was supposed to be Fianna Fáil’s occasion. Their turn to make the flashy promises and showcase new policies. Their turn to talk big and talk about themselves. Instead they ended up fielding countless questions about how and if they can deliver on big undertakings pledged by the leader of Fine Gael at his party’s corresponding political jamboree.

But all’s fair in love, war and impending elections, as will become increasingly clear in the months to come.

Taoiseach Simon Harris enjoyed his first ardfheis without any interference from his main Coalition partner. He showed his gratitude by cornering all the best promises for the Blueshirts and leaving the Soldiers of Destiny to explain them at their ardfheis a week later.

Harris promised big across the board during his keynote address in Galway. But it was mainly Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien and Minister for Finance Michael McGrath who wound up dealing with the aftermath. Michael must have been looking forward to the weekend gathering in the new Royal Convention Centre in the heart of medieval Dublin. With elections on the horizon, he was in the happy position of being able to drop some nice, heavy hints about tax cuts.

He had a perfect word to dangle in front of the voting public: “substantial”.

And when he wanted to switch things up he had another tantalising word: “significant”.

Say no more, Michael.

Fianna Fáil’s Minister for Finance will be opening the purse strings in September. Happy days.

Then Simon Harris declares that no worker on or below 50 grand a year should pay the higher rate of income tax. Immediate grounds for a demarcation dispute there.

McGrath’s hopes of playing a pleasant game of Give Us a Clue over the finer details of his giveaway election budget were dashed. Instead, he was plunged into a game of Simon Says, forced to react to the Fine Gael leader’s pronouncements while not saying anything negative about him.

The same went for Darragh O’Brien, who has been pumping out stats about new home starts, enhanced allowances and expedited building programmes at a ferocious rate.

Then Simon Harris takes to the podium and wrecks his buzz by promising 50,000 homes a year over five years.

Simon says 250,000 homes.

How are you going to achieve that, Darragh?

The Minister for Housing remained calm as he politely poured cold water over what Simon said.

One exasperated reporter cut to the chase. “Minister, are you pissed off with the Taoiseach? He’s now coming on to your territory. He’s become the leader of Fine Gael and he’s come in and said, ‘Actually I don’t think what they’re doing in Housing is good enough. I want 250,000 homes.’”

The Minister wrapped himself in encouraging stats and overlooked the question. For this was a Fianna Fáil event and it was going be a feel-good experience despite the unwelcome encroachments.

With the local and European elections due in June, photographs and the right way to put them in to election literature was among the hot topics at the campaign boot camp for budding politicians. European election candidates were gearing up for the battle ahead with their branded merchandise and leaflets and stickers.

Billy Kelleher pen, anyone? What about a Barry Cowen cotton bag with Barry’s face on it for going down the shops?

Barrister and first-time candidate Cynthia Ní Mhurchú, contesting the Ireland South Constituency along with sitting MEP Kelleher, was a very visible presence among delegates on Saturday. The former broadcaster – she co-presented the Eurovision Song Contest with Gerry Ryan when Riverdance was the interval act – was never far from a camera.

A lively cohort of Ógra Fianna Fáil members went some way towards tipping the age scale slightly out of the grey zone. Many retired politicians attended. One approached a veteran journalist to say he would, for the sake of accuracy, supply any details needed for his obituary.

A few lads in tight trousers and short jackets wandered around during the afternoon holding pints of stout, but their self-conscious presence only served to underline how orderly and well-behaved these events are now.

During the build-up to the leader’s speech, the atmosphere crackled with the pulsating electricity of a power cut. Fianna Fáil general secretary Seán Dorgan was MC for the evening.

He’s no Mairéad McGuinness.

There were video inserts of election candidates in what seemed like a promo for An Post, what with the leaflets and repeated claims of “Delivering for Ireland, Delivering for You”.

Everybody wanted to know the identity of the warm-up act. It was MEP Barry Andrews.

Barry reminded his gently snoozing audience that he is from Fianna Fáil royalty. His grandfather was part of the struggle for independence and his grandmother spent a year in Kilmainham jail for her activities with Cumman na mBan. They were founder-members of the party. His father was one of the signatories of the Belfast Agreement and he was delighted to say that his father and mother were in the hall. (But not his cousin Chris, the Sinn Féin TD.)

“Whether it’s the 1920s or the 2020s, Fianna Fáil delivers on the areas that count,” said Barry, whipping the faithful into a custard of anticipation as he came to the end of his warm-down. Micheál Martin may have been an excellent taoiseach “but we know it was only his first term. To borrow a phrase, he has a lot done and there’s more to do.”

The Tánaiste bustled in to cheers, thunderous applause and a heroic input from the lads gadding around earlier with the pints. The blood was up and he tore into his script. They should have given him a blast of Elton John’s I’m Still Standing when he entered because, clearly, Micheál is still passionate about the job of politics and government.

In a speech highlighting the Coalition’s achievements, he further stoked expectation of a big-spending election budget. And now the race is on between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to claim responsibility for the best bits.

To nobody’s surprise, Micheál remembered that the 20th anniversary of the smoking ban is upon us – his finest hour. It was the thing to do then, he said, but now parents are coming to him with a different concern.


No. The Tánaiste has embarked on a timely new crusade to tackle “the new public health crisis of our time – the impact on children of social media and being constantly online”. His vow to take on the social media companies went down well with delegates. If Micheál can make headway with this initiative, it will be a popular move with parents.

It was a good, solid speech but the atmosphere in the hall fell short.

Local Senator Catherine Ardagh was given the honour of leading the celebratory gallop on to the platform, quickly followed by Lisa Chambers, Mary Butler and James Lawless. But newcomer Ní Mhurchú made a spirited dash from behind, shimmying around the lectern and muscling past the opposition. She grabbed Micheál, gave him a peck on the cheek and a big hug before moving centre stage to punch the air with both fists and holler at the crowd.

She’s one to watch.

You won’t be able miss her.