Sometimes people prod my chest and say, “How is it you’re always on about southern politics? Why don’t you write about what’s going on up here instead?” Well, mainly because I don’t want to be an idiot, given that the word ‘idiot’ come from ‘idios’, meaning one’s own self, in a narrow, parochial sense. I believe that when I write about southern politics, I’m writing about what’s happening in another part of my country. That’s why I’m terribly disappointed that the cross-border bodies are as weak as they are and why I’m enormously cheered by Gerry Adams’ presence in the Dáil and Martin McGuinness’ recent bid for the presidency. It’s not just people south of the border who need reminding that Ireland has thirty-two counties.
So. That’s why I was much taken with the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis in Dublin this past weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better-choreographed Ard Fheis. The audience ranged in neat, ascending tiers, the podium a marble-type altar in the middle, Micheál Martin the cherry on top of it with the national flag on one side and the European flag on the other. Wow, as Mary McAleese once said.
Micheál Martin delivered a really good leader’s speech. That is, he sounded as if he firmly believed every syllable of every sentiment he expressed. Like that Fianna Fáil was a truly European party and wasn’t going to stop being that for anyone (Translation: we’re going to vote Yes in the referendum, so suck it up, ó Cuiv). Like that Fianna Fáil was and is the only truly republican party – that’s to say, the only truly constitutional republican party – in the country. (Translation: those bloody Shinners needn’t think they can claim the legacy of 1916 – it’s ours, do you hear? All ours.) Like Fianna Fáil know what the people of Ireland are suffering, because sure wasn’t Fianna Fáil the embodiment of the people of Ireland? (Translation: okay, the roof fell in, but don’t think our heads aren’t hurting too. Now would ye vote Fianna Fáil, for God’s sake, and let’s get back to normality).
It wasn’t a perfect speech, of course. Micheál, being a Corkman, spoke just a bit too quickly, and that forward-comb hairstyle of his makes him look a little like a Roman senator in a B movie. As for the apology he made for past sins of the party – it wasn’t helped by a partial row-back from it the next day. But that said, it looked and sounded unlike a party that had its life-blood splashed round the abattoir walls at the last election. Or like a party that came as near as dammit to a major split on the eve of this year’s Ard Fheis. Eamon ó Cuiv looked ruddy-cheeked and old-fashioned when the camera swung from him to this bright, sparkly young Roman senator on the altar lapping up the applause that surged up to him as he spoke. At the end, when Dara Calleary and the rest rushed the altar, for a second it seemed as if they might hoist the new Jack Lynch on their shoulders and break into “Here we go, here we go, here we go!” Happy ending, perfect camera-fodder.
At the same time, don’t write off the Dev de nos jours just yet. Putting his shoulder behind the Yes vote may have created clear green water between himself and Sinn Féin, but it also shows Micheál Martin’s willingness to tug even tighter on that choke-lead Brussels has round the south’s neck. It’s a long way to Tipperary, but it can't have been that far from the shiny altar and neatly-choreographed tiers of supporters to the long lines of people – 20,000, with more turned away – who queued to get into the RDS that same weekend. All they were looking for was a job abroad.
What was that near-forgotten play by Paul Vincent Carroll? Ah yes – Shadow and Substance. It was about the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1940s. But its title could have been strung on a banner above Micheál Martin’s head up on that central altar, as he talked about his hopes of a glorious return for the party and the country. Meanwhile, the queues at the RDS inched forward and talked about their hopes of getting the hell out of the country.