Prime Time Political Correspondent - Katie Hannon.
‘Hold on! Stand back! Take it easy! Move back! Let that second wheelchair in!’
To borrow a phrase from another Fianna Fáil era, it was approaching showtime at the party’s Ard Fheis in the vast INEC in Killarney. Delegates anxious to get the good seats had their noses pressed against the glass of the double doors as hundreds more jostled for position behind them and the increasingly nervous security team pleaded with everyone to calm down.
It had the makings of a rather mature mosh pit. Despite the sizable number of earnest young Ógra members clutching their ipads, a great many of the 2,000 or so in Killarney last night would have been eligible to travel there for free.
We spotted a few familiar faces from Fianna Fáil’s past. Mary Hanafin and Pat Carey and John Moloney and Marian McGennis. But this weekend was not about the past. Perish the thought. Onward and upward. That was the message as the SOLDIERS OF DESTINY tentatively slipped off the sackcloth and ashes and dreamed of living a little in the Kingdom.
‘What does Fianna Fáil stand for?’ The party handler who asked me this had such an expectant look on his face that for a second I panicked and thought this might not be a rhetorical question. I need not have feared. ‘Opportunity and fairness!’, he finally revealed with a flourish. Opportunity and fairness popped up again in Micheál Martin’s keynote address. New Fianna Fáil’s new core values. Expect to see these two words plastered across a billboard near you come the next general election.
But first we have the little matter of the local and European elections to contend with. And that of course was the real business of the weekend. Director of Elections Timmy Dooley – as someone who will have to carry the can if it all goes horribly wrong – was playing down expectations. Others were not so cautious. One senior figure bullishly predicted that if Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher fails to hold his seat in the new Midlands-Northwest, Thomas Byrne is well positioned to take it. Brian Crowley is their banker in South. And, according to this optimistic analysis, Mary Fitzpatrick has as good a chance as her rivals of taking the third seat in Dublin.
The third seat in Dublin is the Holy Grail for the party election strategists. Winning it would send out a powerful message that the party’s political fortunes are on the turn. That Micheál Martin is the man to lead them back to their rightful place on the government benches. They are going to throw everything at convincing the electorate that there is indeed something about Mary. Fitzpatrick was placed front and centre as the warm up speaker for the leader’s televised key note address on Saturday night. She put in a good performance but she has a mountain to climb. With FG’s Brian Hayes expected to romp home, Dublin is effectively a two-seater. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is said to be polling very well. If he manages to take the second seat it sets up a vicious dog fight for the final ticket to Europe.
Then there is the locals. Even before their more recent political meltdown, Fianna Fáil has seen a collapse of support at local level in Dublin, falling from over 34% in 1999 to just over 18% in 2009. Those people who spend their waking hours poring over poll data tell me they can see the party doing better this time, perhaps hitting 22%, but not much more. And that might not be a bad result for a party that many had written off.
It’s the possibility of a heroic comeback that keeps them going. As one front bencher confided last night, ‘Enda is actually my inspiration. If they can come back from 2002, then so can we.’