Martin opens the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis with some hints of the game ahead…

At the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, nodding through the officers on the volume of applause from delegates was new to me. Then again, Fianna Fail evidently likes its leaders to lead rather than follow polls or focus groups.

But the reality of running a modern political party is rather different. As the Sussex University Professor Tim Bale told the faithful, polls may tell them they are in recovery, but they also tell them how far they still have to go to recover their lost strength.

If this year’s 74th Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis is one likely to be one of the quieter Irish party conferences this year it’s because there is likely to be little or dissent or mumbling against the leader.

The other party conferences by contrast are likely to be tumultuous affairs, albeit for different reasons. Legislating for the X case for Fine Gael and the meltdown in Labour’s relationship with the hands that feed it, the Unions have raised internal party temperatures close to boiling point.

Here at the RDS by contrast there is a settled sense that Micheal Martin has done the biggest trick in not simply holding on to the office but build momentum for the future. As he sat on the front row the party elders came to see, or shake his hand.

It’s clear that those relentless rounds of the constituencies in the phony war of their first eighteen months of opposition has paid off with bridges being mended or in some cases rebuilt.

In the leaders speech, there was no mention of Northern Ireland. Martin is not dodging questions when he asserts that there are no votes in the issue amongst southern voters. But there was a nub early on in the speech of the pitch he’s been making regularly for much of the last six months:

We talked about what we had got wrong, what our party =stands for and what our future should be.

The message was an absolutely clear one – Ireland needs a credible progressive republican alternative to the current government.

It needs a party which can bridge gaps between groups not widen them. It needs a party which works to combine both social and economic progress.

It needs a party which shows that it can learn from the past but is focused on the future. [emphasis added]

Other themes in the speech saw for the first time Fianna Fáil taking a clear position on the issue of Seanad Reform, an adept criticism of Taoiseach Enda for picking up ideas for reform from other places, in this case the Dutch insurance led health system, without first working out how it might fit Ireland.

He also got a dig in at the Tainiste’s claim to have almost completed the heavy lifting on the economic recovery, when he claimed that Labour and Fine Gael had voted against the 70% of the heavy lifting the last Fianna Fáil government had done.

Ouch! That, as you might imagine went down well in the hall. And if there is one key to understanding a recovery that has most pol watchers here confused it is how the present government mishandled their time in opposition.

Green TDs had barely taken their government seat than Labour TDs were excoriating them for the sin of sitting with Fianna Fáil, rather than anything they did, or were planning to do in a Programme for Government that promised some far reaching and necessary reforms.

Instead they put ideological loathing [or was it jealousy? – Ed] before preparation for government. Fianna Fáil is rather self consciously not making the same mistake.

Having been rolled unceremoniously out of the government bed (with Martin at the helm of the party rather than the government) they are staking out territory on which they fight in the next election.

Health reforms (which Martin began btw), I suspect, are now going to be a major battlefield not simply because the current health minister is making fundamental political mistakes few FFers of the old Bertie school would make, but because Martin senses there is a longer term legacy to be built there:

On James Reilly’s second day in office he announced that he would be scrapping prescription fees yet he has proceeded to double them. He announced that he was extending free GP care, yet he is actually limiting access.

Today James Reilly is the last person left in the country who believes the health system is experiencing anything other than a sharp decline.

As his first act as Minister he abolished the treatment purchase fund that had helped to treat thousands of people.

He set up what he termed a ‘Special Delivery Unit’ which he claims has improved services. The facts show waiting lists are up for adults waiting for surgery.

The only list James Reilly has actually improved is the one for a new primary care centre in his own constituency.

Which said, he is merely at this stage critiquing the government’s shortfall, and opening up the ground. That’s not the same as showing your hand, though it seems some of the intellectual leg work has already been done:

We have already commissioned Mr Brian Turner Health economist in UCC to do an independent paper of how best the Irish Health system should be funded.

The paper actually outlines the disadvantages of the suggested universal health insurance model very clearly. It also includes an analysis of where we believe the core problems are in the system. We will be publishing this before the summer. We will do everything to stand against the mounting chaos which is directly traceable to bad political decisions and destructive plans.

The other key to understanding the FF bounce back is that nations rarely change their DNA as quickly or as profoundly as new political challengers often like to think. That holds for Northern Ireland too by the way!

Tim Bale last night told delegates that they may have cleared the hurdle of proving they were indeed the leading party of opposition in the Republic, the next challenge would be stemming the drift towards cynicism and away from party politics…

More soon…

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