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Bland and stage-managed.

By Suzy Byrne.

Party conference season concludes this month with Sinn Féin meeting in Killarney.  The three party conferences televised so far this year have shown little hope for policy debate and analysis in political parties or even the harnessing of new ideas.

This year Fine Gael had Ministers and Oireachtas members sitting uncomfortably on pieces of soft furnishing on a stage in the National Convention Centre.  The party MEP, and former television reporter and editor, Máiréad McGuinness, moderated. She was told off-microphone by Minister for State Brian Hayes that her work was a “tour de force”.

There were no kites flown by Ministers with new policy initiatives. Instead, members proposed bland pre-screened motions. Ministers and TDs remembered to mention the list of the things done so far in government whilst not appearing triumphant.  Those proposing motions remembered to thank or congratulate the Minister during the speech and to speak to the motion which didn’t criticise the party or its role in government.

When the TV cameras turned off, the conference divided into workshops where the exercise was repeated. The workshop has become another tool for party hierarchies to give the illusion of more hands-on contact between party leadership and members. The invitation of NGOs and other experts to speak reduces even further the possibilities for ordinary members to question their leaders on policy and national issues.  Meanwhile, the real reason many attend conference was revealed – the election for positions on the national executive of the party was cranking up.

The Labour conference (they don’t call it an Ard Fheis) was equally closely managed, on and off screen.  Motions which were not supported by the party leadership, and which had managed to get through an internal committee (a feat in itself), were recommended to be referred back to the party’s Central Council. This meant they would never see the light of day again.  Rather than be voted on by the membership the particular Minister could indicate what was wanted; and a vote would take place on that recommendation rather than a full debate and free vote amongst delegates.

The mini-riot, which took place outside the conference centre on the Saturday afternoon, meant that for some time many delegates were forced to remain in the conference hall.  This didn’t help Brendan Howlin in his very obvious attempts to get a motion on preventing the sale of semi-state agencies rejected. Although not broadcast on television, these proceedings were transmitted online. Heckling and booing from the floor forced the chair of the conference to put the motion to a vote and it was passed.

However, such a motion when passed doesn’t actually mean anything either.  Political parties can hide behind the Programme for Government and, in the case of this particular FG/Labour government, there is the added (imaginary?) prophylactic of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Troika.

Another tactic for stifling debate is putting contentious motions on to the agenda for Sunday morning when delegates have either left for home or are too hungover, either to speak or to listen. The motions are either not moved or time runs out and they are referred back. This happened at the Labour conference with a motion calling for a special conference to be held in 2013 to reflect on the Programme for Government. This was referred back into the safety of the Black Hole of the Central Council.

Parties with more than seven TDs get two hours of off-peak TV coverage. This has now turned into a very long party political broadcast. Leaders then get an additional 30 minutes of comment-free broadcast of their speech to conference. Over the years this has become less introspective and more about addressing the nation after spinning the wheel and before the Nine O’ Clock News. Members who are not public representatives, especially if they never wish to be, are increasingly silenced in the presentation of motions.  TDs propose motions from branches to get their face on the TV, despite it being highly unlikely they wrote the motion.

RTÉ attempted to cease coverage of party conferences in 2002 citing few viewers, cost and the lack of political debate. The parties successfully argued for it to remain and continue to manipulate conference agendas and coverage, and, many argue, to curtail internal party debate. Dull.

Suzy Byrne is a political blogger at Mamanpoulet.com