23 February 2006 Edition
Making it up at the Ard Fheis
By John O'Brien
The Sinn Féin Ard Fheis commanded significant media coverage over the weekend but most of it missed the point.
Gerry Moriarty in the Irish Times almost wept with frustration that the Ard Fheis "refused to wobble". The fact that issues like coalition in the South, or policing, were debated openly was beyond his comprehension. For him, there was only one question - were the leadership going to lose?
Of course, the leadership didn't lose, or win, or come neutral. Sinn Féin debated policies and arrived at a collective position. So, Moriarty and the Irish Times just ignored what actually happened and concentrated on smaller points.
For example, on the coalition debate, the idea that options should be kept open with a special delegate Ard Fheis deciding the issue carried the day. Of course there people who didn't agree. That's democracy.
So the Irish Times leads with a secondary motion on coalition referring to the desirability of getting rid of the Offences against the State Act. This was trumpeted as a "setback for the leadership".
Ard Chomhairle speakers carried the day on the two big divisive issues - coalition and policing, and the Irish Times conclusion was that the leadership will find it hard to carry the day at the special conferences!
This is wishful thinking that has nothing to do with the merits of the issues which were debated and is inspired by a desire to see the republican strategy come unstuck.
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Gerry Moriarty being bitterly opposed to republicanism. But he shouldn't pretend to be an objective observer when he's nothing of the sort. And the Irish Times shouldn't pose as an impartial paper of record, when it is an active proponent of neo-unionism.
Of course, the Irish Times isn't the worst of them. That accolade has to go to the Sunday Independent. The Sindo actually fumes with frustrated outrage whenever republicans do well, and the fact that Toiréasa Ferris scored brilliantly in her Late Late Show encounter with Pat Kenny riles deeply.
They can't take her on intellectually, so they try to switch the debate to what she was wearing. But even that's not enough for the gutter journalists of the Sindo. Brendan O'Connor, who always reminds me of these tedious sixth form schoolboys who think their funny when they're not, turned to his favourite tactic - insult, calling her Toiréasa Ferret.
There's no argument here, just vulgar abuse, and you can't get more vulgar that the Sindo, and in the Sindo you can't get more vulgar than O'Connor.
One issue that seems to have particularly upset the gutter press was that Toiréasa was described as Mayor of Kerry. She's not a mayor, they thundered, only a cathaoirleach.
Actually she is a mayor. The titles were changed by Noel Dempsey several years ago, but don't expect the likes of O'Connor or Ian Doherty to understand that. Real political news is quite beyond them.
The Sindo (again!) decided last weekend to "OUT" Seán Haughey. Haughey, they screamed, is going to run as an independent if Bertie doesn't make him a Minister of State.
Of course, there was no truth whatever in the story. It was just something else that Jody Corcoran, Sindo News Editor no less, made up first and tried to get confirmed afterwards. He begged real journalists in the Indo group to back his story, but despite the fact that they all declined he went ahead anyway.
For the record, Seán Haughey never spoke to the Sindo to suggest or "confirm" he was going to run as an independent. The most he implied, in fact, was that he wouldn't run again for anyone.
Talking of making it up, back to the Ard Fheis. A special briefing for journalists was laid on by the press office. The motions were outlined, key issues explained, and expectations discussed.
But what did the journalists want to know about? Did a motion recognising the role of the IRA in the struggle mean Sinn Féin was refusing to condemn the killing of Jerry McCabe? And were the McCartney sisters being invited again, and if not, why not?
Journalists were told about special speakers being invited to the Ard Fheis, like Mícheal Ó Seighin from the Rossport 5. One intrepid journalist leaped to his feet to ask was he a member of Sinn Féin? Nobody knew whether he was or wasn't; it wasn't relevant. But journalists leaped on this like a pack of ravenous dogs given a live hare to whet their killer instinct. Why don't you know, they thundered?
Strange though, that nobody asked questions about the contents of the Ard Fheis resolutions, the areas that were likely to be contentious or the content of the policy papers produced on health and so on.
Of course, it's not just that the journalists want to seize on every small issue, no matter how irrelevant, which can be used to frighten the readers. That's the instructions they get from their duty editors, and by God, do they obey instructions. You'd think they were in the army...