The train left Belfast Central in darkness at 7am on a mild Saturday morning (January 23 2016). A pile of books sped me on my journey into the Irish Republic and towards the city of Joyce, Pearse and Carson. Exiting the station named after rebel leader James Connolly I took a hard right and strode down Talbot Street and towards the Spire of Dublin. Without breaking stride I went down Henry Street to the very end, then leftwards and up Capel Street towards City Hall and Dublin Castle. A right turn took me past Christ Church Cathedral from where it was a short distance to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral – The Anglican Church the Irish cabinet absented itself from during Erskine Childer’s funeral  for fear of losing their immortal souls.
I was in awe at the place. Festooned with iconography and flags. I counted two tricolours, and by the pulpit a clutch of dust ridden Union flags and many plaques to Irish regiments of the Great War.
Proceedings began. A talk on remembering as instructed by the bible. A talk then on how Britain and Germany remembered the War through music. Academic and niche topics, but interesting nonetheless.
The real action began with a talk by Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford, with a response from Dr Katy Dunne and a bristling audience.
He explained why British involvement in the Great War was justified:
“Germany had suffered no injury nor was under any emergent threat of suffering one. Unprovoked and under a fabricated pretext she launched a preventative invasion of France and Belgium to establish her own dominance.”
“Britain went to war to repel an unjustified attack on a neighbouring ally, to maintain international law and to forestall a serious and actualised attack to her own national authority.”
Biggar explained that Wilfred Owen was not anti-war. Rather, the war poet regarded the First World War as a pity but not futile. For Wilfred Owen “the war against Germany was necessary but pitiful.”
As for the Easter Rising, Biggar argued that for the rebellion to be just and ethical it would need to meet two criteria. Firstly, there must be a sufficiently grave injustice.
He enumerated his points with compelling authority. He said that the British government in Ireland was not persisting in grave injustice, rather “all of Ireland’s major grievances had been addressed.”
The Irish people were electing their own representatives to the Westminster parliament and Irish issues dominated business.
The Catholic Emancipation Act ended the exclusion of Catholics from public office.
Protestant control over local government had been largely lifted.
The majority of Irish magistrates and judges and senior officers in the police Constabulary were of Catholic nationalist stock.
The Wyndham Act of 1903 provided tenant farmers with government funds to purchase land from landlords, allowing the majority of them to become land owners.
Ireland was enjoying a cultural renaissance.
While per capita national product was less than in Britain, it was higher than Norway, Sweden, Italy and Finland.
Secondly, the other hurdle to make any confrontation just and ethical is that all routes of peaceful resolution must be exhausted. This had not been met, Biggar said.
“Home Rule, autonomy within the British Empire, had been on the Westminster statue book since 1914, awaiting implementation on the war’ end. For sure, such implementation was rendered uncertain by armed resistance from protestants in the north, but the outcome had not been determined and success was still possible.”
For the Oxford professor there was no grave or unbreakable injustice that would have justified the 1916 rebellion, “Instead what motivated them was a belief in the cathartic property of nationalist bloodshed. A hatred of the British political and cultural connection, and a revolutionary elite’s fear that the Irish people were becoming decadent in their contentment with the status quo.”
Finally Professor Nigel Biggar said:
“The Easter rising was thus less a last resort in fending off a great wrong, than an aggressive attempt to provoke it. Sadly successful.”
Responding, Dr Katy Dunne presented the rehearsed Irish nationalist position that the Great War was an exploitative war between greedy empires and that with Home Rule frustrated by the belligerence of Carson’s Army, the insurgents were right to strike for Irish independence.
Later, Mary E. Daly, on the Irish state’s organising committee for the decade of centenaries, gave an overview of Ireland’s rainbow DNA and often colourful and misremembered history. Hill 16 at Croke Park was originally called Hill 60, named after a hill in Gallipoli where the Connaught Rangers suffered heavy casualties in late August 1915.
After a lively Q&A dominated by Biggar and Daly the event was drawn to a close. (See all my sketches from the event here.)
I’m used to the format of the northern party conferences. This was my first southern conference and I knew it was to be different.
Where the leader’s speech will be over by 1pm in Northern Ireland, in the south it won’t begin until after eight in the evening.
I arrived at 5pm and went through a rigorous security check beside the sprawling conference hall, far larger than anything up here.
Speaking with an official they said there were 4,000 registered but expected about 3,500 to attend.
I took myself into the hotel which backed on to the hall. It was bursting to capacity with well dressed people in high spirits. I scanned around and could see cabinet members and regular backbenchers mixed among the excited delegates. I stood beside the Health Minister as I checked in.
I don’t really know Fine Gael, just that they are the party of government, that they used to be “the farmer’s party” and that generally they cater for the middle classes.
My mission here was to fill in the blanks and get up close and to understand the party that has guided Ireland from a disastrous recession and bailout to a world celebrated recovery.
I saw high society ladies, the type you would see at Down Royal, well dressed men, young and old. A tall angular lady looked like our Secretary of State.
In the restrooms there was singing and people flowing with talk. There was a wide range of ages, and it seemed the open bar area was ringed by older people. Finance Minister Noonan was saddled in the corner beside the soup and sandwich stall. There was drink on the table but I didn’t see it in hand.
Everywhere the drink was gushing, and the Leader’s speech was still two and a half hours away.
As I walked to the bar I saw slightly dishevelled types that broke the “middle-class” mould. I saw also some inner-city looking younger people, not so different from the type at the Sinn Fein conference I attended in Londonderry in March 2015.
With my drink I took to the back bar where the football was showing to the sound of whooping and the loud hum of conversation.
A couple in holiday-wear from Clare were at the bar. Standing aside to attend my charging phone I got speaking to a man of few words. He was from the west with a rolling accent that is sometimes incomprehensible to the northerner. It certainly wasn’t all D4 types as angry republican types say on Twitter.
“McGregor!” came a call. Turns out it was Henry Coyle, a fast talking Irish boxer who seemed to think I had a resemblance to the Irish MMA fighter. Apparently Boxer and FG councillor Kenny Egan was also at the event, but I didn’t see him.
Then two local lads who were on the beat for the Dublin Review, Kavin and David (see the second picture above), made my company. These guys were doing the media thing alternativey, just as I was. With this in common we made an instant bond, we had spurned the media room for embedding ourselves among the people and the members, the real story of the party and the conference. I can say now I thought at first they were young Fine Gael, what with their big hair and nice jackets.
They gave me the low down. They had been at the Fianna Fáil conference the week before. Those party members were a lot happier to talk. Apparently there was a palpable level of discontent and a hunger for the return of a Haughey.
It was approaching 7.30pm, the official time to take your seats ahead of the Leader’s speech.
Outside we went for a smoke, I passed of course. I watched as my new found colleagues in writing talked to an older fellow from Limerick. After about five minutes he left with a guffaw, “I doubt I’ve given you enough for a story for tomorrow!”
In to the hall we went. Numbers bigger than anything I’ve seen at a conference – dwarfs the DUP and vastly exceeds even the 2015 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. The bars had emptied just before we left for here, so I couldn’t help but think that a large number of attendees were sitting with their bellies full of porter and spirits. It kind of reminded me about the old tale that men would turn up at Saturday Mass full, presumably swaying as they took the Eucharist.
Like the hotel lobby and bar these moments had an extra-political feel to them. Like a rugby match when the air and atmosphere is pulsing. We got up nice and close, just to the right of the Leader’s podium.
To pass the time the audience were treated to a succession of warm up talks and party broadcasts, of which the latter were of very high calibre.
Brian Hayes MEP was last to speak before An Taoiseach, but this address was the news of the evening for me. Like a corner-boy, he did the dirty work on the party’s major adversaries, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fáil.
“Sinn Féin presents itself as something new despite the fact that Mr Adams has been around as long as Robert Mugabe…
Who do Sinn Féin answer to he asked, then suggesting, “Is it the people or the republican criminal underworld with their boiler suits and balaclavas?”
Then introduced to the hall was Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael Enda Kenny TD.
At the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis Gerry entered from behind the curtains and strolled 2 or 3 metres to the podium after an introduction from Michelle Gildernew.
Mr Kenny’s took his time, coming into the room from the side door to the sound of Fleetwood Mac ‘Don’t Stop’ and cheering from the crowd.
This was nothing compared with the sounds and flags of a DUP conference, a party with a tradition for a leader walk-in like a boxing title fight at Madison Square Gardens.
Kenny’s address was unentertaining. It had a simple purpose, state and state again that this is the party that started the Irish recovery and it is the party to keep the recovery going – just as it was with Cameron and Osborne, a simple message said often.
“Fine Gael has a clear, costed, long-term economic plan to keep the recovery going.”
There were of course some key election pledges, but nothing to truly rock the conference. (See all of my sketches from the Leader Speech here.)
As soon as he finished he was swamped. We left the room, moving hastily for the bar. As we poured out I saw a woman in her eighties hauling an American style election placard that disclaimed, “Let’s Keep The Recovery Going!”
As he left I turned to the other for a chat. We talked generally. When the election would be, how the numbers were looking, and some questions from me on the party history. He was a TD he then told me, to my surprise.
For the apathetic northerner there’s not much to separate Fine Gael from Fianna Fáil. So I asked him what the difference was. “Fine Gael has a history of cleaning up their mess.” It’s their corruption and dodgy dealing that makes us different, he said.
“What about the civil war politics, is that not an issue?” I asked. “No” he said.
Outside and I made the acquaintance of some Fine Gael youth, one had been to QUB.
“I would have got on better with the middle-class unionists, the students from the country in GAA tops just say they want a 32 county Republic, it’s a bit unnatural.”
It made me think. Yea that’s like a loyalist turning up at LSE dressed in British emblems and full of patriotic talk about the Queen. Gerry Adams said back in September 2015:
“Most citizens in England would have little in common with what unionists describe as ‘British culture’.”
Something similar could be said about the northern republicans and the more relaxed Irish identity in the south.
From the smoking area we went inside and towards the disco happening above the lobby. Charlie Flanagan stopped and asked what I was doing here and what I thought of it (I had spoken to him in passing at a previous event saying I liked what he and Heather Humphries were doing on 1916, and was very surprised he remembered me. Nice gesture.) I gave him the low down, it was a bit of reconnaissance by a curious Northern protestant.
The disco isn’t my thing so I went back to the bar where a local rep was with his fellow councillors. There the talk got interesting.
I heard how several of these young politicians had grandfathers who fought in the civil war and saw gruesome atrocities. This was the civil war split I had expected.
Just as I come from a unionist gene pool with inherited loyalties, so it seems some of the reps were from the Fine Gael gene pool.
I met one councillor who self-professed as “very-republican” and his colleague who he described as a “west Brit”. This lady said her household was very much in the Remondite tradition. The same was said by a member from the Waterford area. Likewise, I was cross-examined on my background and politics.
I awoke easy at 10am after a hard night’s partying which was disorientating. After a bite to eat I took a bus from my host’s house 7 miles into the city centre. Then to my regular Buswell’s Hotel behind the Dáil for the Sunday papers, some fuel and to recharge the phone. A lot of Ard Fheis coverage, but I had had enough politics for the weekend.
From Molesworth Street I set off to the Royal Hibernian Academy. I was going there to see the exhibition, ‘The Foggy Dew’ by Mick O’Dea. I stopped by the Shelbourne Hotel and got directions. With a 2 minute walk I was at the RHA.
I had already seen the work online, but nothing compares to the physical look. The 18 portraits of the rebels and rebel leaders, from Patrick Pearse to Roger Casement are dramatic and absorbing. Upstairs there are four sprawling canvases with detailed scenes from the 1916 Rising. Each is a picture of intrigue.
The hour was now 3. The day had passed quickly in the haze of the post-revelry come down. Half an hour of trailing my art and tools and I was back at Connolly Station.
The train was to depart at 4pm but was to be rerouted at Newry with buses from there to Belfast, all due to a security alert.