Photo taken from www.oireachtas.ie.
There are certain rituals that herald the end of the Irish summer and the arrival of autumn. There is the Rose of Tralee Festival, the All Ireland Finals and – in recent years, anyway – what the media like to refer to as the annual ‘think-ins’ of the various parliamentary parties.
On 15th and 16th of this month, the newly elected Leader of the Labour Party, Joan Burton, will take her parliamentary party to Wexford to prepare for the new Dáil session. A few days earlier, Enda Kenny will take his Fine Gael troops to Fota in Cork, while Fianna Fáil will head for Roscommon (where there is a by-election pending) and Sinn Féin will also decamp from Leinster House to hold similar sessions.
These meetings are a relatively new phenomenon in Irish politics, really starting only in the late-1990s. The original idea was to take members of the Dáil and Seanad away from Leinster House and its various distractions for a special meeting of the parliamentary party to allow members to prepare for the new Oireachtas session, discuss new policy proposals and to hear from some guest speakers. There was also an element of encouraging members to ‘bond’ in the more informal hotel setting.
Over the years, the nature of these events has changed. While originally they attracted minimal media coverage with perhaps a handful of journalists turning up towards the end, now they have turned into major media events. As the parliamentarians descend on their various venues, they will now be accompanied by outside broadcast units, radio journalists, political correspondents, colour writers, photographers and even bloggers.
Apart from annual conferences, these events now provide probably the biggest annual media opportunity for each party and consequently they are very much driven by the needs of the media. There will be various set pieces – the arrival of the Leader for a ‘doorstep’ surrounded by a ‘doughnut’ of backbenchers; the set piece address by the Leader; the ‘Morning Ireland’ and Newstalk ‘Breakfast‘ interviews; the unveiling of a new high-profile recruit, perhaps; a soft-focus photo opportunity (preferably in the hotel garden) to provide pictures for the newspapers and visuals for the evening television news bulletins; and the final press conference – all aimed to take advantage of the voracious media appetite for political coverage.
Sometimes, the meetings can be used to deliver a particular message. Fianna Fáil did this to some effect following the hammering they received in the local and European elections in 2004, when they went to Inchydoney in Cork and invited the social justice campaigner, Fr. Sean Healy, to address the meeting. This, accompanied by the decision to dispatch Charlie McCreevy to Europe, was an attempt by Bertie Ahern to portray a more caring Fianna Fáil (this was also the period when Mr. Ahern confessed to a surprised nation that he was actually a socialist.)
However, these meetings are also high-risk affairs and easily can go wrong. In the convivial atmosphere in the bar late at night, backbenchers have been known to tell journalists their real view of the party leader. The government parties will inevitably attract demonstrators who will turn up at the hotel entrance to object to something or other. In 2012, the Labour Party ran into trouble when three senators boycotted the meeting as they considered the venue – the luxurious Carton House Hotel – to be inappropriate, given the cuts being imposed by the government.
But most notorious of all was the meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in Galway in September 2010 when Brian Cowen turned up on ‘Morning Ireland’ sounding decidedly the worse for wear. It later turned out that the then Taoiseach had been partying late into the night, entertaining the journalists and colleagues in the bar with his fine singing voice.
For those working in party backrooms, the alarm bells would have sounded that morning when Cathal MacCoille thanked the Taoiseach for coming straight to do the interview ‘without having had his breakfast’. With more than 400,000 listeners, the set-piece interview on ‘Morning Ireland’ is a crucial element of these meetings. Party staff will normally see that the party leader socialises with journalists and colleagues the night before; gets to bed at a reasonable time; gets up early; eats breakfast; sees the morning papers; and has an opportunity to go over issues with colleagues.
The interview unleashed a storm of controversy, did enormous damage to Brian Cowen’s credibility, further undermined Fianna Fáil and made the country the subject of some ridicule among comedians and commentators abroad. One of the side-effects of ‘garglegate’ has been to significantly reduce the consumption of alcohol at these meetings with members of all parties determined to avoid ‘doing a Brian Cowen’.
This year’s round of meetings are unlikely to be significantly different from those of earlier years. There will be particular interest in the Labour meeting to see how Joan Burton does. But they will all still be largely driven by the needs of media coverage, with limited discussion and very little policy-making. If parties wanted to make these meetings genuine ‘think-ins’, they would make them private events with no media present. Realistically, that is not likely to happen.