Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Muted craic at FF think in

While Taoiseach Brian Cowen is well known for his singing ability, it was showcased only briefly at this year's Fianna Fáil think-in at Ballybrit's Clayton Hotel.

Pre-dinner entertainment consisted of a speech by raconteur extraordinaire Micheál O Muircheartaigh and a couple of birthday wishes for two parliamentarians who celebrated their birthdays in the past week. No mention was made of Bertie Ahern, who celebrated his 57th birthday last Friday, but was busy elsewhere for this year's festivities.

After Monday night's dinner, An Taoiseach was prevailed upon by local host Frank Fahey to duet with Eleanor Shanley in a 'unique' rendition of the Mountains of Mourne. It went down a storm, as one might expect from a room full of loyal acolytes.

However, Cowen's stint as entertainer was short-lived, as he refused requests for an encore. You wouldn't get that from Westlife.

Lest the hordes go home disappointed, Tuam native Tom Kitt and Munster MEP Brian Crowley entertained into the wee hours at the hotel's piano, resulting in some sore heads at Tuesday morning's sobering health sessions.

Traditionally the life and soul of the party at Fianna Fáil gatherings, Cowen looked like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders at his first parliamentary party conference as Taoiseach.

And well he might. Far from the jubilation of last May's homecoming in Clara, it seems the cat who got the cream has realised that the cream was well past its sell by date when he got it, and is now decidedly sour.

As one TD admitted, there are tough times ahead.

"Well, when you haven't enough money coming into the house, what do you do? You cut back. That's what you do."

And that was the tone of Fianna Fáil's 2008 think-in. The phrases 'tough decisions', 'current economic climate', and 'tighten our belts' were bandied about with increasing frequency.

Even the closed sessions were particularly serious this year, concentrating on 'Sustaining Prosperity' ('Digging Ourselves Out, Part I); 'Defining Ireland's Future in Europe' (DOO, Part II); 'Innovation in our Health Service' (DOO, Part III); and 'Leading in our Communities – European and Local Elections' (DOO, Part IV). That's a lot of doo-doo for one conference.

At yesterday's closing press conference, the mood was grim, leavened only by Tánaiste Mary Coughlan's giggling as she posed for cameras, and the inevitable collective snigger when the Grealish question was asked, yet again.

"I genuinely don't know," said Cowen, sighing. "There is a Parliamentary Party meeting of the Progressive Democrats tonight and we will have to await the outcome of that." Now stop asking me questions I don't have the answers to, was the unspoken warning.

Shortly after the press conference An Taoiseach was whisked off to the National Pay Talks, leaving a disgruntled-looking Minister Mary Hanafin to wheel her own suitcase to her car. Now there's chivalry.

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