Somewhere out there in the world, I’m sure there’s a recipe book for leaders’ speeches. And when Eamon Gilmore popped his first one out of the oven on Saturday night you knew from the first bite that this one had used familiar ingredients and followed an age-old method.
I have covered every speech by every leader of every Irish party (with the exception of The Socialist Party and the Workers Party) over the past four years and they all follow a roughly similar pattern. There’s the rhetoric (I want a better Ireland); there are the specifics for news headlines (Pat Rabbitte promising lower taxes); there is the record (FF major on this, for obvious reasons); there’s the attack on the other crowd; and then there’s the climax where the leader rallies the troops into a rally of joy and expectation.
And of course the basis ingredient is rhetoric. Lots of it:
“I believe that every person is equal. It is as simple as that.”
“Labour made modern Ireland.”
“Ireland needs a New Purpose”
“We need a vision for our country, and its place in the new expanded Europe and increasingly globalised two or even three decades.”
But for all that, the speech and its delivery were surprisingly good and the conference itself also defied many expectations by turning out to be an anticlimax of the anticlimax we were all told it would be.
It must be remembered too that Labour approached this weekend’s conference in Wexford like a pupil approaching the school building knowing he hasn’t got his homework done.
It was bad enough for Labour to find itself sitting on the shelf after the May Election. At a time when introspection was needed, the party was forced into a national conference that it simply didn’t want but had to have for its own constitutional reasons.
It was always going to be an unusual conference – it’s unprecedented for one to be held so soon after an election. There was no live TV coverage. There were low expectations. There was none of the ersatz stuff you expect around national conferences and Ard Fheiseanna (which have become wholly TV-oriented and stage-managed in recent years).
Or as one delegate put it on Saturday, he sometimes feels that he is being dragged along to national conferences just to clap (for the cameras).
Perhaps it was because expectations were so low that the conference was more robust, more muscular than was anticipated. In fact, with the exception of Gilmore’s speech, it was one that belonged very much to the delegates.
And party HQ didn’t get it all its own way either (that was also very refreshing). A motion that would have committed the party to implacably oppose the Shell terminal in North Mayo was narrowly defeated (Labour Youth almost sneaked it in an early morning vote) and the party leadership by a whisker referred a controversial motion on the legalisation of cannabis to its National . And for a while in the afternoon, it looked HQ’s opposition to a fully fledged two-day delegate conference next year would be defeated by bolshie delegates.
And the motion on Labour’s presence in the North of Ireland was intriguing, with a series of very strong speeches from Northern delegates. One Michael McBrien referred to de Valera’s famous speech from 1918 in which he said Labour must Wait. And conscious of FF’s expansionist ambitions, he argued that Labour could no longer wait to organise in the north.
Another delegate Ronan Farren, a member of Labour and the SDLP, argued against either Fianna Fail or Labour arriving into the nest like cuckoos.
"The arrival of Southern parties in the North will only serve the interest of the two parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, responsible for deepening sectarianism in the north," he said.
It must have been a very difficult week for Gilmore, following the death and funeral of his mother. Despite a nervous start, he delivered a strong speech – that was helped by the fact that it didn’t have to stay to the exact half hour for the purposes of television.
The new Labour leader set out his stall in a general way. There were few specifics in the speech, but he nonetheless sketched out where he wants to go. His attack on Bertie Ahern’s obsession with money and the Government’s poor handling of Shannon was clever. He was never gratuitous instead comparing Ahern unfavourably to Eamon de Valera and Jack Lynch.
In real terms, Gilmore isn’t a wet week in the job yet. And it’s clear from the passages on the long-term vision thing that a couple of trips to the optician will be needed before it’s brought into sharp focus. Yes, he is right saying that Irish politics is very short-termist – but his vision of Ireland in 20 years time will need a lot more detail, a lot more specifics before anybody begins to buy into it.
Anybody, who knows Gilmore will know his values and will be unsurprised that he majored on equality of access to education, on eradicating poverty, and on improving the health services (there were only two paragraphs on crime). He seems to be saying that he will try to come up with practical do-able solutions that are easily explained.
What was probably most interesting of all was his own perception of his style of leadership (not a ‘boss’ like Haughey but the captain of the team).
“I don’t rule the Labour Party. I serve it… This party belongs to all of us… My job is to steer and, sometimes to point, from the vantage point I have as leader.”
Are we about to experience a most unusual species in the modern political world – a modest and humble leader? Gilmore will realise that the party needs rebuilding and renewal, needs new candidates, needs to do well in the European elections. On radio yesterday, he said it was much too early to talk about electoral strategy. I think it’s almost too early to talk about anything. It’s a period for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. And to that end, the most telling thing he really said came towards the end of the speech.
“When this conference is over, I intend to embark on a journey- physical and political to relearn Ireland. To visit communities across the country, talking with people about their lives, their families, and their aspirations.”
It’s only the start of the journey for Gilmore, too early, much too early to start experimenting with the ingredients, the method or even the recipe itself.