Saturday, November 17, 2007


Wexford 4.20pm
Midway through this afternoon's session, one of the delegates said that he sometimes feels that he is being dragged along to the national conference just to clap.

Having been at every party conference of all the larger political parties in the State over the past four years, I know how he felt.

The two bigger parties have brought it much further along the line, but conferences and Ard-Fheiseanna have become increasingly stage-managed. Get you candidates onto morning TV. Have a couple of new initiatives to feed the media a line. Have a catchy slogan. Pump-prime a couple of simple (and easy to absorb) messages. And put the bulk of your energy into the leaders speech.

FF and FG Ard-Fheiseanna have become ridiculous in recent years. You get no sense that this is grass-roots democracy in action. Debate takes the form of the party leadership dictating what will be and the delegates meekly going along with it.

In recent years, the smaller parties have also got into the act. The last thing you want to do is air all your fights in public. And Sinn Fein have gone furthest along the road. You always feel (and maybe this is unfair on my part) that every moment of the debate, every instant is being controlled from the top table.

And so as a general rule, the conferences have become sterile. No blood-letting. No arguments. No nothing.

But I must say that today's conference was an exception.

Maybe it's because this conference was a little unwanted (too early after the election; too early for Eamon Gilmore). There's no live television (except on the web- and I must say the live stream from Ustream has been magnifico) and there were very few expectations. It was all about housekeeping - deciding on strategy for elections, for policy, for establishing a presence in the North, for (yet again) a name change.

And I must say (and I never though I'd say this for a Saturday afternoon session) I enjoyed it. It began with Micheal D Higgins that social democracy is a label that can be used against Labour. It continued with a speech by his wife Sabrina Higgins who was so flamboyant in her passion that her husband seemed subdued by comparison.

"We have got to be activists," she urged. "The media is where it's happening. (But)... they are complacent. I do not see them as having a vision that we have for people and for tomorrow... Be a campaigning party."

There were a couple of robust debates and what the party hierarchy wanted, the party hierarchy didn't fully get. One of the motions called for a full delegate conference each year (the leadership also want this but don't want it to happen until 2009). That was defeated on the floor. In a bit of a procedural mess, it was then kicked into touch and referred to the National Executive Council (as the cannabis motion was this morning). The chair, Breda Moynihan-Cronin, made the mistake but otherwise she policed the session with a fist of steel.

The motion to explore the possible expansion of Labour in the North was heavily backed by the conference (no surprise there) but there were different nuances of opinion as to how this should happen (should Labour organise itself for elections in the North? Should it tie-up with the SDLP? Should it leave the SDLP to forge it alone?).

There were a couple of very good contributions to this debate, most from Northern delegates. One Mike McBrien harked back to Dev's famous speech of 1918 that 'Labour Must Wait'. He argued that Labour could wait no longer in Northern Ireland.

Or from Michael Robinson who argued for the same thing and warned about allowing Fianna Fail steal a march in the North. He reminded delegates here in Wexford of Bertie's famous self-declaration as a socialist:
"Bertie stole our clothes down here. Do not allow him steal our votes in the north," he said.

Ronan Farren is a member of both Labour and the SDLP (and a former press officer with the part). He gave a passionate and strong speech in which he warned about Labour following FF's lead by trying to woo voters in the North.

"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.

Labour's debate on its future in the North will be fascinating. But I suspect its own moves will be very much tempered by what FF may or may not do.

The best moment of all came with the very last motion, which might have seemed frivolous on the face of it. Dermot Looney from Dublin South West wanted the party to adopt the Red Flag as its anthem. The song - which has been adopted internationally and is the song of the British Labour Party - was written by a Meathman, Jim Connell from Kilsyre. Looney gave a funny, passionate and visceral speech.

When he quoted the last two lines, he brought the house down.

"Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here."

Once uttered, there was no way in the world that that particular motion wasn't going to get passed.


Dan Sullivan said...

I share your feelings about the staged and rather sterile nature of Ard Fheiseanna. So I'm planning on trying to organise something along the lines of the fringe meetings you get at British party conferences at the next FG Ard Fheis, the purpose being to allow members see and actually participate in a proper debate on some areas of policy. As nothing from these gatherings will be binding on party in any way we might get to see greater diversity of opinions and some more original contributions.

Dan Sullivan said...

A note for the Labour party, don't say that the speech will be on at 7pm and then leave the channel open for 20 minutes with nothing but the background chatter coming through.

Anonymous said...

There wasn't any motion to change the name of the party - pay attention Harry!
You may be confusing it with a motion to change the definition of the party (no. 75) from democratic socialist to social democratic, which was defeated.