Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Party Conferences - Article for Metro Eireann

Party Conferences are a strange animal, [particularly in the Irish political context. Anyone who was fortunate enough to witness David Davin Powers live report from the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis (They don’t have conferences – they have an Ard Fheis – more of that later) would realise that they attract a rather special bred of political activist.

Davin Power was surrounded by a collection of local election candidates as he made his report to Anne Doyle in RTE’s news studios but it was the demeanour of these men – and they were all men – was what took most commentators by surprise. They have been described as ‘zombies’ these unblinking, sombre-faced goons that were convinced that their election prospects would be enhanced by appearing in the same television frame as a man from ‘da telly’. If you do manage to ‘You Tube’ this most historic moments of journalistic history, be sure to watch carefully at 69 seconds as one delegate falls from his chair only to recover his composure by facing the wrong way! Wonderful stuff. Just so you know, Fianna Fáil literally translates as ‘Soldiers of Destiny’. Some bunch of soldiers.

Of course the term ‘Ard Fheis’ was once described to me by a lecturer in modern Irish in UCD as being a most unfortunate term. Apparently the word ‘feis’ comes from the old Irish ‘bainis’ meaning ‘coming together’. ‘Bainis’ is the word also used for a wedding, and more specifically, describes the events that generally happen in the bedroom of the married couple in their wedding night. So with ‘Ard’ meaning ‘high’, you can imagine how amusing us horribly hormonal teenage students found his explanation. We in the Labour Party of course are far too international to have such an operation, despite our liberal views on sexual liberation. We have a conference every year.

Of course our conference and your average Ard Fheis follow almost exactly the same format. Motions are proposed supporting / attacking the government, all of which are generally passed unanimously, and then delegates retreat to the bar to talk election prospects into the night, followed by virtual waterfalls of alcohol. Anyone who manages to gather their thoughts and rescues a clean shirt for the morning televised session from 11am to 1pm feels very strongly that they have to maximise their spot in the limelight. However the reality is that only those who are flicking through channels to find something interesting to watch will happen across the musings of these candidates and will most likely recoil in horror before frantically seeking another channel.

Speaking at conference during airtime is also a difficult balancing act, making sure that the hall responds to you warmly while focusing your message to those watching at home. Generally your candidate will state something along the lines of ‘As I walk through (insert list of local areas here) I meet people who say to me (insert current topic here) and it is a damning indictment of the government’s failure to (do something about what I care about). It can be repetitive, and extremely boring, but for sad politicos like me, it is absolutely riveting.

Meanwhile the elections take place for the various internal party positions, the National Executive Committee and other various bodies charged with administrating the party from day to day. Such competitions are remarkable as the votes of most delegates are committed before they enter the host town, never mind the conference centre. It is fun though, especially when you know all the people so well. It is certainly an election I could never see myself fighting, as not to receive a respectable vote from your own comrades would be pretty hard to take.

That is why we public representatives realise that we are strange animals. Before we got involved in politics, we used laugh at those who appear on the shoulder of a party leader in a vain attempt to appear important on the television. Now such an opportunity cannot be passed up at any cost – the key is to appear concerned and interested – and to hope that the leader’s handlers don’t approach you afterwards and kindly suggest that you wipe your nose before you ever go within half a mile of our leader again, thank you very much.

The leader’s speech is of course the highlight of the conference and the atmosphere is generally fuelled by alcohol, with loud clapping and foot stamping and mindless yelling. The end of the speech is when the scrum begins as every half-baked politician lunges forward to congratulate the leader on his tremendous achievement and then hang around so that all the cameras can catch them being so important because they are standing beside the leader of their party.

And then the whole sorry episode generally descends into anarchy as stories are swapped, backs are slapped (and stabbed) and pints are downed. The Sunday morning motions are really for the die-hards as most are either still in bed or trying to find one. Our conference generally concludes with several standing ovations for Michael D Higgins and a pretty embarrassing redition of ‘The Red Flag’ which sounds exactly like ‘Oh Christmas Tree’ without the happy ending.

But don’t let me put you off. Join a party, become a delegate, go to conference, drink yourself stupid, run for national executive, shake the leaders hand, scream like crazy at his speech and spread the rumour that you’re set for an assault on the electorate come the next election. It is fun – honestly!! And if you’re really lucky, you might even get yourself on telly!