The Beatification of Charles

The thousands of individual sounds rose up out of the crowds, merging to become an aural steam rising into the high rafters of the main hall of the RDS. It was 6.45 pm, thirty minutes to go. Paddy Power was babbling on endlessly about fishing, but not too many cared. Delegates came to the rostrum; their speeches lost in the hubbub, got their perfunctory applause and returned to their seats. 7.07 pm and the crowd was growing restless, the occasional yelp skimming through the air towards the platform. Eight minutes to go and Cork's Tom Buttimer, was complimenting Jack Lynch and assuring the new Taoiseach, of the loyalty of Jack's city. The crowd whooped. Then, the time was at hand. Charlie rose to his feet and the crowd rose to theirs.


He would speak for sixty-seven minutes and the crowd would howl and applaud for another six. The final formal act in the ritual of the beatification of Charlie Haughey. His right to stand alongside the three previous leaders in the Fianna Fail pantheon was being confirmed. The lobby of the RDS was dominated by four huge photographs of the leaders, Dev, Lemass, Jack and Charlie. Three of them, by virtue of death or retirement, canonised to sainthood, Charlie, though baptised by the sweat of rank and file, his electoral miracles as yet untested, remains for the moment, "one of the Blesseds".


All else was mere trimming, lace on the seams, enlivened only by occasional touches of farce, witting and unwitting. "It is necessary," boomed Leitrim Councilor Farrel McElgunn, "that Fianna Fail become stronger than ever." And Euro TD Jer Cronin, leaving the platform, chose that moment to stumble and go sprawling across a chair. The ritual denunciation of RTE was led, this year as last, by Sligo's Willie Farrell. A hint of a smile rippled across Charlie's lips as Willie stuttered indignantly about the privileged elite of the press, the leftwingers who dared to insult our glorious leader "Charles Jayseph Joe Haughey."


In the press room overlooking the Ard Fheis, some of the privileged elite crouched around a TV set to watch a rugby match, others indulged themselves with the free coffee and sandwiches, few worked, and most just stood around impressing one another with predictions about Charlie, Teddy Kennedy or the Ayatollah. Most of the RTE staffers took the insults in good part and few took any pains to conceal their enjoyment of the latest wrangle between Fianna Fail and its arm of government. It could end with Charlie getting an egg on his face, which would be one up for the old firm, or Muiris MacConghail would take the rap, which would be just fine by most people.


Willie Farrell's RTE bashing speech was dropped, quite irrelevantly, into the session on energy on Saturday afternoon. At which point the Ard Fheis was being televised live. As the minutes ticked away towards 1.30 pm, and the end of transmission, the platform party grew more edgy. They would be off the air before the Minister got a chance. Eileen Lemass interrupted the debate to announce that she was calling on the Minister for Energy, and Tanaiste, George Colley, to say a few words and would the delegates please keep the noise level down, so that he could be heard. Colley, his dignity ruffled by the events of the past couple of months, was to be given a bone, a few minutes live TV exposure.


The delegates put an extra bit of energy into the applause to show that there were no hard feelings, that they knew how to treat a loser. And beneath the applause, a muffled cracking sound, like a roll performed by a drunken drummer, began to grow. As the applause died the crackling grew louder, drowning Colley's first words. And the microphones went dead. Colley smiled. Charlie smiled. Seamus Brennan smiled, frowned and reached for a phone. Colley tried again, and again, and smiled and smiled, and the seconds ticked away towards l.3O. In the embarrassment of the minute or two that passed before the fault was repaired, it must surely have crossed Colley's mind that the long, crooked arm of coincidence was dangling from its socket. He began reading his speech and following his introductory remarks, he skipped over pages two, three, four and five of his speech, to ensure that the section on nuclear power went out live on TV.


 Charlie's speech, when it came, didn't say much. But it said it to everyone, which was the important point. He sees Northern Ireland as, ''the major national issue and its peaceful solution as our first political priority': On the other hand, or even the same hand, industrial relations is "so important that we will award it absolute priority': The agricultural sector, "is many ways still the most important", while "it is on the industrial sector that we have to rely in the main". The beginning of the speech was carefully laced with the appropriate key words and his first nine sentences were interrupted for applause, seven times. The same care was lavished on the concluding sentences, one of which alone contained the guaranteed cheer jerkers, "Dev", "Republican", "Democratic", "Ideal", "Liberty", and "Equality", sufficient foreplay to ensure that the atmosphere at the end of the speech was suitably orgasmic.


As soon as Charlie began to speak of ''the tragedy of the North", an audible, "shhhhh!" ran around the hall and the expectancy was almost palpable. The awaited phrase, "A declaration by the British Government of their interest in encouraging the unity of Ireland", was immediately swamped in cheering as the delegates waved their hands in the air. The next five words, "by agreement and in peace", could not be heard in the body of the hall, although they were audible to TV viewers.


Ensured of front page coverage of the only concrete proposal in his speech, the setting up of an inquiry into the tax structure, Charlie was not too worried that that section of the speech did not go out live on TV. He started his speech fifteen minutes before transmission began in order to ensure that his standing ovation at the end would be witnessed by the viewers. In any event, his gambit of hiring the ITGWU band to play him onstage to the tune of "A Nation Once Again", the band that several weeks before had led 300,000 protesters through Dublin, was the neatest trick of the weekend.


Out in the lobby, the Clare delegates had set up a stall to collect money, in order to erect a statue of Eamon de Valera. To encourage interest, they exhibited a scale model of Dev, his hat held to his breast. Like one of those holy statues that sit on the windowsills of every schoolroom in the twenty-six counties. A just tribute to the most respected of the Fianna Fail saints. Many are the trials and tribulations that lie ahead, before such honours come Charlie's way. He has told them what they want to hear and must now attempt to do what they want done, an altogether tougher task. He must develop and exercise his populism to win the unconverted outside the party. Meanwhile, the doubts have been deflated, the debris of the leadership struggle, swept away. The party has agreed publicly and collectively, to Beatify Charlie and back his attempt at Sainthood.