So, beige says Miriam of the Fianna Fail leader’s closing speech to his party’s Ard Fheis. Not wrong, of course. Steady as she goes, the weekend’s national conference was business like and not prone to much in the way of story telling or narrative.
More like a business meeting, in fact. If anything the leadership was focused as much on playing down polls and playing up the amount of work still to be done before next year’s local government elections. Visiting professor Tim Bale warned them that even a good performance at current levels in the locals would do no more than backfill losses incurred between 2009 and 2011.
“Last year we were allowed to speak at the Ard Fheis for the first time, this year we can vote” said one northern convenor. The Soldiers of Destiny have noted the haste with which the Northern Ireland tories entered the public fray, and show no signs of repeating such hasty mistakes.
Reform and repair was the theme of the day. Motions on Northern Ireland successfully passed were largely focused on organisation. One member one vote replaces the block vote for Cumainn, and is intended to make membership more meaningful (even though if decisions at Ard Fheiseanna remain advisory rather than binding).
And as Harry McGee notes that Fianna Fail picked up one useful trick from their time with the Greens:
One intriguing suggestion is the holding of a national conference to decide if the party enters a coalition arrangement. A recurrent fear expressed by its TDs and Senators is about a possible scenario that would have Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil being the biggest parties in a volatile environment, where an anti-party vote returns a high percentage of independents.
That would mean huge pressure on both to form a grand coalition, which both will resist. Putting it to convention (where rejection could be all but guaranteed) could give the leadership political cover. Another mooted change will involve the membership in the election of party leader. This is a big move away from a very Fianna Fáil phenomenon, the notion of an all-powerful chief or boss, uno duce un a voce.
That could ring a clear change in character in fact. By changing the structure of the party (something I sense that some old members are at best lukewarm about) Martin is hoping to take the power away from the old fashioned fixers and ward bosses and redistribute it to the wider membership.
Debts are being paid down steadily and rather more transparently than some of their rivals, along with the announcement of an ambition to established a war chest of 1.5 million for the locals and 2 million for the general election.
Money is what made the party toxic. It even helped do for the independent (but former Fianna Fail activist) Sean Gallagher in the Presidential election (aided by that still mysterious and plausibly deniable Bogus Tweet).
The assertion that all party funding would henceforth only come in small donations may have been what emboldened Darragh O’Brien to take a passing swipe at Gerry Adams millionaire funded treatment in the US in his warm up speech for the party leader Micheal Martin.
What made the conference beige was the lack of a distinctive single narrative. I’d say that was deliberate, cover to get on with the business of making necessarily small changes upon which to build for a more competitive future. But they will need one sooner or later, and something that defines or lays out the party’s mission in the longer term…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty