In the last two weeks, I have attended, as a guest, both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael presidential dinners, both held, incidentally, in the same room in the Burlington hotel. I took the opportunity to talk to quite a few members and thought I’d jot down a few notes and observations.
1. The age profile was quite markedly different, I thought, with the attendance at FF both smaller and older. I don’t think that necessarily reflects the attractiveness of either party, but the fact that parties in government tend to hire younger members for parliamentary assistant jobs, etc. Certainly, the FG profile was younger from when I last attended an FG dinner some years ago.
2. Interestingly, in both parties, I felt a genuine inter-generational tension. This always exists in parties, and did in my time in the Progressive Democrats, but not to this extent. The younger people in FG seemed to feel that their betters felt that getting into government was achievement enough, and are surprisingly bitter at having to carry the can for the policy u-turns and slight of hand stunts. In FF, one young member summed up the older generation as “They wrecked the party, and now they want to stay as if nothing happened.” Others voiced similar opinions.
3. Whereas I still believe FF and FG are effectively the same party, there was a bit more social diversity at the FF dinner. I did ask members at both about a coalition with the other after the next election if there was no alternative, and found much greater resistance at the FG dinner, although for quite po-faced reasons (in my opinion anyway) of FF paying penance. Certainly no one at either dinner, and I asked a lot of people at both about it because I wanted it as a “control” question, could come up with a policy reason why not. Most expressed the opinion that if the two parties did enter coalition, it would become almost a permanent relationship even in opposition, like the Australian Liberal National coalition.
4. The FF dinner had a slight Star Trek convention thing to it (yes, I have and yes, I know) in that people kept walking past me who I looked at and thought “Didn’t he/she used to be someone?”
5. Both parties have a different perspective on Sinn Fein. FG are afraid of their economic policy, whereas FF people believe that SF are economic spoofers. However, FF people specifically raised the danger of SF interfering with the Guards to ensure that more politically sensitive senior officers be appointed. FF people also raised the idea of SF wanting to change how the history of the troubles is taught, with the troubles been given the same moral status as the War of Independence, which is a chilling thought.
6. Two things struck me about the FF dinner. Firstly, Michael Martin visited and shook hands with every single person at every table, and that Senator Averil Power takes two hours to cross a room given the amount of old dears who queue up to meet her. I know, I saw it with my own eyes. One other thing about Marin’s speech. It was curiously free of actual politics, focused more on FF winning elections again and serving the Irish people, but not how. The only political remark in his speech was a go at what he termed “the far left”. When I pointed this out at the table I was at, I was told “sure only a PD would notice that”.
7. At both dinners, there is an interesting consensus that Phil Hogan will go to Brussels in 2014, and that the next leader of FG will be either Leo or (this always makes me scratch my head) Simon Coveney. Really? Also at both dinners, comparisons were made between now and the early 1980s, with SF playing the role of the Worker’s Party to Labour and FG very nervous about the emergence of a new party to their right.
8. Finally, someone told me a story about Charles J Haughey describing his cabinet as having “four people of talent, and ten imbeciles for the other ten seats”. Ah Charlie.
9. Couldn’t move for bumping into ex-PDs. Turns out we haven’t gone away, you know.