Following on from my preview of the party conference last weekend, it only seems fair that I now review the proceedings.
Mood of conference
The party gave me quite the schizophrenic vibe over the weekend. There is still a lot of personal support for the front bench, especially Eamon Gilmore and Joan Burton. There is also great respect and admiration for the blitz that Ruairi Quinn is carrying out in the Dept of Education. At the same time, people outside the official fold of the PLP such as Pat Nulty were also warmly greeted and were made felt welcome at the event. While I'd be loathe to call it a love-in, it was pretty close to that at times.
On the other hand, there was also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the role of the party in government. Many of the decisions and policies implemented so far seem to have a far greater blue hue than a red tinge but with the numbers they way they are in the Dail and around the cabinet table that is to be expected. But it still doesn't make it easy for members to remain committed to being in government, especially those that voted against coalition this time last year (I'd be one of them).
Many of the motions debated were of the mom and apple pie variety. Yes, we're all in favour of jobs and improving the health service. As predicted the Saturday morning TV session was completely stage managed with banal contribution after banal contribution on non-controversial topics just to get the three minutes of fame. I would be much more in favour of some real debate being shown to the few viewers that tune in. Pick some suitably juicy motions on the property taxes, fracking and Corrib gas, 3rd level fees, water charges and leaving government and let rip. At least it would show the public that the party isn't afraid of real debate and difference of opinion.
There were also far too many motions on the agenda. Several sessions were guillotined without even time for a proposer to make a contribution. I think I saw about 15 contributions supporting or opposing motions over the weekend and a majority of them were on the abortion and Vatican motions on Sunday morning. The party needs to come up with a way of reducing the size of the agenda - at times I felt that many motions could have been composited together and many others were merely reaffirming existing policy. Perhaps two motions per constituency or section would be better than the current one per branch, constituency and section.
There was also a lot of attempts to refer controversial motions back to the party executive to avoid a vote by the members. Over the weekend several speeches from the leadership reminded us that we the ordinary members were the party. Well if that is true then the leadership should be willing to accept the democratic decision of the delegates at conference. On two occasions votes to refer had to be shouted down and tellers called for to show to the top table that the members didn't want to follow that course of action. One hopes, but doesn't expect, that the new party chair Colm Keaveney will not follow this railroading at next year's event.
The protest on Saturday certainly added something to the conference. I'm all in favour of protesting and have been on more marches than I care to remember. Having seen various videos of Saturday's protest, and specifically the breaching of the garda cordon to gain access to the plaza outside the conference hall, I would have to say the use of pepper spray seems unjustified. Sure, there were the usual few eejits who insist on wearing their hoods up and putting bandanas over their face but I always think that's more to avoid being recognized by their mothers' than by the authorities. Unless someone gets seriously injured or major damage is done, the Guards will never push for prosecution. But a bit of pushing and shoving, about as violent as the 10 seconds before the ref throws in the ball in Croke Park, should be easily managed by the Gardai without resorting to sprays, water cannon or horse charges (as were used against the USI demo a couple of years ago).
I know that some of the more elderly delegates were quite frightened by the events but one really has to wonder what would have happened had the protest gained access to the hall. I doubt that a riot would have broken out. A bit like the Jehovah's Witnesses, I'd almost be tempted to ask them in for a cuppa. Lets see what words of wisdom beyond "They say cutback, we say fightback" and "No way, we won't pay" they could have added to the debate on increasing income taxes on high earners, banning the sale of any state assets, wealth and asset taxes and demanding clarity on IBRC bonds and promissory notes. I'm pretty sure that there is a lot of common ground between those who were inside the hall and those outside with the flags and banners.
So what happens next? Well to be honest not an awful lot. Motions passed will be forgotten, those referred back will sit on a shelf and the government will continue implementing the PFG irrespective of the wishes of the conference delegates. And that's a bit of a shame. The members' forum probably provides a much better way to debate and develop policy so hopefully that process will continue. The party membership will be somewhat split over the upcoming Fiscal Compact referendum so that will keep things interesting for the next 6 weeks or so. But unless something drastic happens I imagine we'll be back to conference in April 2013 debating the same old topics and having an awful lot of beer in some location as yet to be determined.