Saturday, February 17, 2007


4pm Saturday
It's still February. The election is still months away. And already I'm beginning to feel like one of the depression-era marathon dancers in the film "They Shoot Horses Don't They"

The pre-election-campaign campaign is in full swing. Nearly every weekend between now and the end of March, there is a party conference or Ard Fheis. From Friday night to Sunday afternoon, each of the parties say 'come hither' and spend the entire weekend shamelessly flaunting their wares at us.

This weekend it's the PDs down in Wexford (for the party's own ongoing coverage of the event, follow this link) With each convention, the names and slogans and messages may change but the format and over-riding atmosphere are the same for all.

For the media, this is how it pans out: The party leader opens the conference on a Friday night with a speech that will include a news line for the TV and radio news at 9pm and for the following morning's newspapers. The news tag from McDowell last night wasn't an announcement but a 'The End is Nigh' speech, warning about the Armageddon that will happen if that useless shower in the opposition ever get their hands onto power.

The Bert is a master of the Friday night newsline - at the last FF Ard Fheis he announced in his Friday night speech that he wanted a referendum on the rights of children (that's the one we may or may not have before the election!).

These are annual conferences and motions actually do get debated. But nowadays you sense (with all parties) the internal debates are mostly for cosmetic purposes. The real deal is the oodles of priceless unopposed publicity all weekend. They get two hours of live TV in the morning. It gets an opportunity to showcase as many of their candidates as they can. The party leader will do a doorstep interview with a huddle of reporters. This is for the benefit of radio reporters. Then there's another hour of RTE coverage, this time on radio with John Bowman, in which three or four of the party heavyweights get airtime.

Things you always hear at party conferences. Morale has never been so high. We are all 100% united behind our great leader (insert appropriate name). I have been coming to conferences for a long time and can safely say that this has been the best one ever. The media have got it wrong.

Things you never hear at party conferences. We're doomed. The media have got it right.

Anyway, like other conferences, the PDs have gathered a big crowd here. I'm in the main hall as I write this, for the afternoon workshops. They used a neat visual trick to portray the hall as full. Every row of seats has its own table. Brilliant! Theres nothing worse on TV to show a half-empty auditorium.

For a small niche party, the showing is very respectable. At this very moment they are debating a few motions on crime. Hey, it's the PDs after all and we're hearing a lot about being tough on crime, but not so much, sadly, about being tough on the causes of crime. Oh, yeah, loads of applause for McDowell everything his name is mentioned.

They have just started an open forum now with the great man, as he does a Q and A session with delegates. He, John Dardis and guest speaker David Quinn have been placed on stage in an informal manner, seated on stools like traditional musicians but without their instruments (ie they all look very uncomfortable).

Of course, the main event will be McDowell's maiden leader's speech tonight. You don't have to have too much wattage up in the attic to know that he'll go for broke - with tax cuts, or new tougher laws on crime, or the like.

As I wrote in my column this morning, McDowell is omnipresent. In Ireland, the cult of personality has always run deep in political life, particularly in Fianna Fail where the party was personified by its leader, de Valera, Lemass, Lynch, Haughey, Reynolds and Ahern.

All parties approach campaigning, here as elsewhere, in a presidential manner, pushing the personality of its leader. But it seems to me that the cult surrounding McDowell is a bigger one that the one that surrounded Mary Harney.
Everything in the party seems to revolve around him. Sure, Harney is still a senior minister but she now confines herself to the task in hand in Health. Where are the others who should have stepped up to the place. The two other members of the leadership troika, Liz O'Donnell and Tom Parlon, have not asserted themselves sufficiently.

Sure, there's no such thing as bad publicity. But are there perils to being over-exposed, to to the PDs being totally synonomous with McDoweel, to fatigue kicking in. Maybe he and his party should learn that sometimes less can be more.

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