Public Affairs

Séasúr na hardfheiseanna

November 2023 saw two of Ireland’s big three parties, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, hold their ard fheis. In addition, the Green Party and the DUP held their annual gatherings in October, and Fine Gael held a special agricultural conference. Ciarán Galway and Joshua Murray have been attending ardfheiseanna around the country.

Fianna Fáil:
Delivering for Ireland. Delivering for you.

Micheál Martin TD is set to be only the third Fianna Fáil leader, after de Valera and Haughey, to lead the party into four general elections.

About to enter his 13th year as the leader of Fianna Fáil, Tánaiste Micheál Martin TD keynoted a relatively restrained, non-voting ardfheis at which senior party figures took turns in championing the party’s record in government, and in which Martin emphasised his Foreign Affairs remit, projecting an image of international statesman.

Martin, whose three general elections as leader of Fianna Fáil have been the three worst in the party’s history by vote share, had confirmed before the ardfheis that he will be leading the party into the next election.

Although Delivering for Ireland, Delivering for You was the theme, Martin’s focus in this ard fheis traversed beyond Irish affairs, with foreign dignitaries from many EU member states and beyond in attendance.

Privately, party members spoke of the lack of a clear successor for Martin, with some members saying they did not expect the current incumbent to lead the party far beyond the next election.

Prior to the leader’s address, a video montage celebrating the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was played. With the faces of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern – once again a fully-fledged member of Fianna Fáil – beaming down from screens on the 1,500 assembled delegates, it felt far removed from the days where “Legion of the Rearguard” was belted out to the jubilation of the party faithful.

Whereas in 2022, Minister for Education Norma Foley TD “stole the show” with a rousing warmup speech for then-Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD, in 2023 there was a much more subdued introduction from Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien TD.

Paying tribute to party leader Micheál Martin TD’s “grit and determination when it was most needed”, he then launched a scathing attack Sinn Féin’s housing policies – “the Loch Ness monster of Irish politics”, followed by a personal attack on his Dáil adversary, Eoin Ó Broin TD – “the Harry Potter of Irish politics”.

“Their day will come, but not in the way they expect because we are a republic and we do not do entitlement,” O’Brien said of Fianna Fáil’s republican rival.

He also lauded ministerial colleague Michael McGrath TD’s delivery of Budget 2024 in the month previous, the first budget, he reminded delegates, to be delivered by a Fianna Fáil Finance Minister since “the late great patriot”, Brian Lenihan Jr.

Upon taking the stage of the packed Dublin Royal Convention Centre, Martin defended Fianna Fáil’s vision of republicanism and its record in government over the last three-and-a-half years.

“The Ireland of today stands proudly as one of the oldest democracies in the world; a republic with record levels of employment and the highest population for a century-and-a-half,” Martin said.

As the Government continues to grapple with the housing crisis, Martin took a considered approach to acknowledging the Government’s ongoing challenges.

“There is only one sustainable solution; build more houses to own and rent, and to deliver this we need action on every front.”

While striking a conciliatory tone with his coalition partners, Fine Gael and the Green Party, the Tánaiste took the opportunity to promote measures which he hopes the public will attribute to Fianna Fáil’s return to government, stating that over 650 schools have completed a “major investment project” since his party’s return to government.

The Fianna Fáil leader was clearly hoping to find a way to disentangle his party from its ideological proximity to Fine Gael before local election – and possibly the general election – polls open later in 2024.

With regard to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Martin was emphatic in his condemnation of Hamas. “The brutal savagery of Hamas has no justification whatsoever,” he said.

Martin also said that the State of Israel has “a fundamental obligation to respond within the boundaries of international humanitarian law”.

The attendance of the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Dana Erlich, was the topic of much debate in the aftermath of the ard fheis. Lost on much of the Dublin media was that Martin’s call for Israel to comply with international law was the message received with the greatest enthusiasm from Fianna Fáil delegates.

It is evident that with the Israeli Ambassador in attendance, Martin – who through his words had almost the entire crowd on its feet at this point – was sending a message to the Israeli representative that the Irish people’s support for Palestine is distinct reality at the heart of mainstream politics.

Continuing on the theme of diplomacy, Martin promoted the Shared Island Initiative, a series of infrastructure investments from the Irish Government in the North, which he said will “be seen as marking a decisive and lasting move forward for peace and reconciliation on our island”.

The Tánaiste affirmed his party’s support for Ukrainian membership of the European Union and said that EU membership has been “absolutely central” to Ireland’s development. Martin also warned of “corrosive euroscepticism and anti-democratic regimes which seek to undermine the Union”.

However, while playing to his strengths in foreign affairs, the Fianna Fáil leader’s focus on this remit may not bear electoral fruit as this does not tend to be an area which dominates the voting intentions of the Irish electorate. If Fianna Fáil is to defy the odds and lead a government after the next election, it needs a new message to connect to the electorate and gain back support it has lost to Sinn Féin and Fine Gael since its heady hights of the 20th and early 21st century.

That being said, polling suggests that regardless of its performance in the next general election, the party is set to be a lynchpin of any possible coalition; be that a configuration broadly similar to the current coalition or one led by Sinn Féin. In the latter scenario, Martin’s continued leadership and visceral disdain for the lead opposition party could act as a stumbling block. Ultimately, the crescendo to his almost four decades of service to Fianna Fáil may be to keep Sinn Féin out of Government Buildings one last time.

Who succeeds Martin is a hazy proposition. This ambiguity is a testament to his now assured grip on his party that at several previous points appeared to be on the precipice of a coup d’état. There is no doubt, however, that the ambitions of those around him, though camouflaged for now, have not been abandoned.

Sinn Féin:
Am don athrú/Time for change

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald TD (right) and vice president Michelle O’Neill MLA (left), pictured with the Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland, Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid.

Ireland’s oldest all-island party has never occupied the top office of government in the State, but what was clear from attending the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Athlone is that many of Sinn Féin’s members believe that it is the party’s ‘destiny’ to lead government in the coming year.

Am don athrú/time for change was branded throughout the Technological University of the Shannon in Athlone, with the party’s message that Sinn Féin is a chance for a government which does not include Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

With the party’s course to electoral victory leaning heavily on voters believing in its vision for solving the housing crisis, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald TD opened her keynote address with a poetic vision of the importance of an allegorical house, referring to “love of home” as being “what defines us”.

The Sinn Féin president continued: “From those who fled famine and persecution, to the generations who left in search of work, to our young people today who seek opportunity across the globe, our special affinity with home binds us together.”

While strongly critical of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, McDonald stopped short of explicitly ruling out a future coalition with either party, stating that Sinn Féin is “ready to lead” a new government in the south, and that her preference was “a new government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for the first time in 100 years”.

On Irish reunification, the Sinn Féin president repeated the by now clichéd line emphasising the need to “plan”, further outlining her objective of establishing a citizens’ assembly on Irish unity. Whilst McDonald did not go into more detail on this, she was keen to reassure Sinn Féin delegates that “momentum is building” and urged: “The day is coming when everyone on this island will have their say in referendums.”

In relation to a unity referendum, and in an apparent rebuff of comments by Northern Ireland Junior Minister Steve Baker MP, the Sinn Féin president also said that each vote must “count equally” with “no vetoes” and “no shifting of the goal posts”.

Sinn Féin entered this ardfheis with what might have been interpreted as a disconnect between party leadership and party membership on the latest developments in the Middle East. Whilst there is no suggestion that McDonald has ever drifted in her support for Palestine, it can be understood that Sinn Féin is a party which has been riding high in opinion polls and is determined to avoid any political own goals.

While initially refusing to do so, following several weeks of pressure from the left and from her party grassroots, the Sinn Féin president used her keynote speech to unequivocally call for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, much to the approval of delegates.

The republican party is sometimes maligned by members of the media and political opponents as being “undemocratic”, but the stream of young and grassroots members afforded their opportunity to publicly deliver their message to the leadership showed a party which is, at least, highly participatory.

The party members will have been further reassured that McDonald will not stray far from its republican and internationalist principles by the presence of Sinn Féin’s traditional allies from the Palestinian Authority, Catalonia, the Basque Country, and the African National Congress.

Currently, the fanfare which surrounds McDonald is unparalleled in any other party, with enthusiastic Sinn Féin members of all ages swarming the leader for photographs in a manner which was not analogous at other party gatherings. Sinn Féin members believe that they have their dream ticket to government on both sides of the border of this island, and ultimately the path to Irish unification.

DUP party conference 2023

13 October 2023 • Crowne Plaza Hotel, Belfast, County Antrim

Credit: Liam McBurney/PA Images
  • “We have a clear mandate to resolve the issues that confront us because we have campaigned for arrangements which restore our place in the United Kingdom.
  • “This party has a proven track-record of saying yes, and leading from the front, when it is right to do so. Equally, we will not be afraid to say no if we conclude that what is on offer does not adequately deal with our fundamental concerns and is not in the best long-term interests of our place in the union.
  • “Those who believe that a united Ireland is around the corner, that it is inevitable, and that Northern Ireland within the union will cease to exist are entirely wrong. If we make the right choices now, we can secure the union for generations to come, but that means being prepared to face up to new realities and adapting to new circumstances.”

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP

Green Party annual convention 2023

22 October 2023 • Clayton Hotel and Cork City Hall, Cork

Credit: Green Party

• “In a world at war, voting Green is a vote for a more peaceful world. In a world that is burning, voting Green protects our people. It is the antidote to fear. It brings a future we can all believe in.

• “The bombing of civilians is never justified and is never going to work. The oppression of the people in Gaza and the West Bank has to stop now. The humanitarian imperative requires an immediate cease fire.

• “Algorithms are designed to hold our attention by promoting what we like, confirming our existing prejudices, and promoting greater polarisation. It is a threat to our democracy as we are bombarded with disinformation and conspiracy theories.”

Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan TD

Fine Gael special agricultural conference

18 November 2023 • Glenroyal Hotel in Maynooth, County Kildare

Credit: Fine Gael

• “As we move towards the end of a third term in government, we are up for fighting for a fourth. This party needs to use days like today to prepare for what is coming. Next year is a watershed moment in Irish politics.

• “The only way our arguments win is if all of us are saying the same things and backing each other up and contradicting the conspiracy theorists that are out there that want to try and undermine the rational, positive, responsible politics that Fine Gael leads every single day of the week.

• “This country is not perfect, it never will be. There will always be things to achieve, there will always be new challenges that will come out of left field like Covid did, like Brexit did, like the war in Ukraine.”

Fine Gael deputy leader, Simon Coveney TD

Show More
Back to top button