Bertie's City West charade is indicative of the devaluing of democracy
On prime time television on Saturday night, 4 November, Bertie Ahern will address the nation from the City West hotel outside Dublin in what will be no more than an extended party political broadcast, under the guise of being a party conference. The sole purpose of Saturday's event is to garner publicity in the run-up to the next general election and Fianna Fáil will have another bite of this cherry in March when it has another "party conference".
There was a time when party conferences had at least the semblance of being the decision-making forum for political parties here. Of course, that was always more theoretical than real but, at some stages with some parties this was for real, to some degree. The Fianna Fáil ard fheis in 1971 in the aftermath of the arms trial of 1970, for instance, had some substance to it – this was the occasion that supporters of the then leading dissident, Kevin Boland, interrupted proceedings and there was that memorable (for those who remember!) enraged declaration from the platform from an otherwise unflappable Patrick Hillery: "Ye can have Boland but ye can't have Fianna Fáil."
Labour Party conferences used to be real. Real issues were fought over, usually whether to join in coalition with one of the "right-wing" parties. This is no longer an issue of contention within the Labour Party since it is itself now a right-wing party. Even Fine Gael ard fheiseanna had an edge at times, but no more. Sinn Fein ard fheiseanna were significant, even though there was a suspicion that the invisible hand of the IRA was always in control. Now the visible hand of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are in control and that party's ard fheiseanna are window-dressing as well (Ian Paisley's apprehensions on the outcome to the ard fheis that will decide policy on policing in Northern Ireland are misplaced).
The devaluing of party conferences into mere publicity stunts is part of the devaluing of democracy generally. Only in a theoretical sense do the people decide their own future – they get to vote, perhaps, 15 times in their lives in a general election and even that exercise is pretty meaningless because it involves opting for one or other of a ragbag of policies and candidates, no possibility of discerning between policies on different issues, no role in deciding the agenda on which elections are fought.
Saturday's event in City West will be an eloquent representation of the vacuity of our democracy. There will be no opportunity for the members of the party to contribute to the formation of party policy (that was the theoretical purpose of party conferences at one time). Hardly any opportunity for more than a handful of members (aside from the leadership) even to speak. The role of the members will be to perform with fake enthusiasm in front of the television cameras, ecstatically cheering not just Bertie Ahern but such luminaries as Willie O'Dea and Martin Cullen.
And the national broadcaster, RTÉ, will collude in this charade by dutifully giving over a primetime slot on Saturday night to broadcast "live" the banalities that will flow in profusion from City West to that fraction of the television audience that doesn't decamp to RTÉ Two, BBC or Sky Sports, an audience deprived that week from its usual indulgence: Winning Streak (or will that follow on afterwards – or is it the same thing?).