Chairing for Ireland
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
``Moltóir, cuideitheoir, moltóir, cuideitheoir''. Sometimes at a Sinn Fèin ard fheis when you hear those two words repeated for the 20th time you find yourself developing just a little sympathy for the person who holds the sad role of being chairperson of that particular session. Don't worry, it's a bit like a hunger pang - the feeling goes after a minute or two.
Everyone else is either queuing to speak, while fending off the steering committee dogs barking that they have two minutes or one minute to speak, or maybe they are sitting in the body of the hall, reading the clár while semi-listening to contributions from the floor. Better still at times to be mingling outside the speaking hall with the great and the good of the wider republican family.
The chairpersons have to work for at least two hours, without gossiping with those beside them, without a quick tea or coffee, while making sure that the speaking queue winds down on time for the votes and the next session.
The chairperson is centre stage, under the lights, with at times a bank of cameras focusing in on whatever noble republican personage has taken a place at the top table.
He or she is the one who cannot go on the tear the night before because chairing an ard fheis debate while sobering up is not a recommended activity.
So what makes a good chairperson? Well there are several qualities, apart from the obvious ones such as competence and fairness. You have to be forceful without being completely dictatorial, and be able to command some respect from the speakers while retaining a sense of humour.
Many are called but few succeed. It is generally agreed by the Steering Committee that the chair among chairs, the pre-eminent purveyor of gruff humour, is none other than Sligo's Sean MacManus.
Others have challenged his title but few have the skills or the experience Sean can bring to the big occasion. Sean is the master of the not so subtle put down. He is a rigid time keeper, though there was some slippage this year, and when all else fails he can with remarkable impunity blame the Steering Committee for all his mistakes.
example of the high esteem in which the Steering Committee holds Sean is found in the fact that this year, and in many others, he held the Sunday morning first session slot, possibly the most difficult ard fheis debate to chair. Why? Because most of the republican populous spent Saturday night gossiping and entertaining etc.
The sound of Sean MacManus's voice booming from the PA system provokes a hidden Pavlovian response from Sinn Féin delegates, who slowly fill the hall on Sunday morning, some still suffering from the previous night's excesses. Many are not really sure why they are there except for the fact that some higher mystical force is calling them.
Other chairpersons are on the learning curve. Conor Murphy looks like a good future prospect. He set a precedent this year by telling a speaker his time was out and that he was speaking against a motion proposed by Conor's cumann so he ought to leave the podium anyway.
ne Speed made the best recovery from disaster this year, when she lost her steering committee notes. Her difficulties were compounded by the fact that the session she chaired contained the most hotly debated motions and the only ones requiring tellers. But like Manchester United's Champion's League form this year, she pulled it together for the last vital moments and came through on top.