Answer: A Fianna Fail press conference.
We had 50 minutes of it yesterday at the Fianna Fail parliamentary party meeting at Druid’s Glen including a 15 minute marathon answer from Tánaiste Brian Cowen on the economy, construction, the fundamentals, soft landings, liquidity, Northern Rock, Kerry’s victory in the All Ireland, and the spillover the sub-prime market in the US has globally.
And all the time stampeding from the corner was the elephant but the ignoring of said vast grey mammal by the top table at Fianna Fail was admirable.
When the inevitable question arose about the Mahon Tribunal, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern went into schtum mode, as he had done when being harassed by reporters during the election campaign. The question, when it arrived, was adroitly posed by TV3’s Ursula Halligan, who asked him how people had reacted to his appearance last week.
He wasn’t going to go there, he said. When she persisted, he just clammed up, pursing his lips into a rictus smile. There was a brief embarrassed silence, nothing like the extraordinary eight seconds of silence that occurred during the election campaign. But the message was clear; the subject is off limits.
The Taoiseach’s uncomfortable journey through his own marathon examination at Mahon has been the undertow of the two day annual think-in of the parliamentary party. To be sure, it was never going to be any other way, given the fact that the think-in is now sandwiched between his two appearances. But it was clear that everybody in the party was following the Boss’s lead – by saying nothing. The only thing of significance that Ahern said was that Willie O’Dea was a “great minister”. That was in response to the remarkable free run O’Dea got in the Sunday Independent to take a swipe at its Tribunal.
Ahern’s problems with his personal finances have overshadowed everything in Fianna Fail since the story first broke exactly a year ago. It panicked Ahern into calling the election early, gouged into his party’s election campaign for an agonising two weeks and is still dominating the party’s agenda in the autumn, just as the Dail returns to business proper. And if he thinks the reporters’ questions are offside, wait till the opposition parties begin to take a cut off him next week in the Dáil.
This is the extent to which it dominated. The other Fianna Fail-related story of the story was the controversial axing by Aer Lingus of its service from Shannon to Heathrow. This think-in was the first opportunity that backbench TDs from the mid-west had an opportunity to vent their frustration publicly over the issue and the Government’s cack-handed handling of it.
Yesterday, nobody brought it up at the plenary session. Nobody that is except the unexpected figure of Senator Mary White (not really associated until now with the save the stopover campaign) who took a huge cut at the leadership for abdicating its responsibility and also reportedly dressed down the Taoiseach’s special adviser Gerry Hickey for shaking his head in disagreement. We have written before about FF rebellions but it was clear that there was no appetite for mutiny yesterday. In previous years, White may have got a round of applause. But yesterday, there was silence.
In recent years, party strategists have realised that the think-in is a good way of capturing the news agenda in the slowish weeks before the Dáil returns. And so every year, there is at least one new initiative and one core message, each drip-fed in a coordinated way to the media. They took on an extra importance for the party this year, in that they would help distract the public’s attention – if only temporarily – from Mahon.
This year’s initiative was FF’s proposal to attempt to do in the North what Sinn Fein is doing in the South. It all sounds very grand except we have heard it all before, at Ard Fheiseanna over the past four or five years. And it’s all very vague. It might or might not involve a tie-up with the SDLP. It might or might not involve Fianna Fail establishing an electoral presence in the North. That only thing that’s solid is that yoke that is beloved of all political parties, a high-powered committee, has been formed to look into it. This one will be chaired by Dermot Ahern.
One other major announcement – the probability that we will have two referenda (one on Europe; the other on children) within the next 12 months. Will the age of consent be broached? Again Ahern was very circumspect, saying that it would be very hard for all parties to reach consensus on this.
The core message was simple – the economy stupid. On a day when Irish customers of Northern Rock began queuing for their money at its only Irish branch on Harcourt Street, it was important for the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to come out with a positive line.
There was no need to panic, was the key message.
Or be to verbatim about it, this is what Ahern actually said:
“There is no place for negativity. No need for any pessimism. Above all, there is no place for politically motivated attempts to talk down the economy and the achievements of our people across all sectors.”
Ahern was particularly dismissive of one headline that said the economy was crashing.
“They are not economists who say things like that. Anyone who says that knows nothing about nothing. You wouldn’t give them a dime going down to the shop.”
He and Cowen accepted that construction had ‘moderated’ or was facing a soft landing. The figures behind those euphemisms are that new starts on houses will fall from 90,000 last year to 75,000 this year to as low as 60,000 next year. And double digit growth in departmental budgets ain’t going to happen next year. The message from Cowen was that it all must be manageable and sustainable.
This was the first PP meeting after the election and it was low-key, subdued. Especially compared to the high octane ones beginning in 2004 at Inchdoney when FF revved itself up into election footing.
This was as flat as the plains of Kildare. Not because it's the beginning of a long slog (the 2012 election), but because it's right in the middle of one (Ahern's money problems).