HAPPIER TIMES: Green Party members Eamon Ryan and Deirdre de Burca at a Green Party think-in in January 2008

THE Irish political world is preparing to emerge from its 12-week break and normal service resumes in Leinster House on 29 September. But the new political season will kick off with the party 'think-ins' early next month.

Born in the bubble, they have become a staple of the political calendar in recent years, with TDs and senators from all the main parties converging in hotels for a few days each autumn to discuss strategy before the new Dáil term.

Started by Fianna Fáil during Bertie Ahern's tenure as party leader in 1996, the most famous think-in took place when the party went to the Inchydoney resort in Co Cork in 2004 after its disastrous mid-term local election performance.

After an address by social justice campaigner Fr Sean Healy to the Fianna Fáil faithful, Ahern declared himself a socialist, and senior party figures were photographed strolling on the beach.

The reason for the think-ins, the parties say, is to offer all the politicians from a party the opportunity to meet at a location, usually outside Dublin, where they can focus their minds on policy and the party leadership can "rally the troops" before the new Dáil term.

So where are the 2010 think-ins taking place? And what, if anything, can we expect to happen at them?


Where & when: Faithlegg House Hotel, Co Waterford, on 8 and 9 September

What to expect: Like most parties, Fine Gael is keeping its cards close to its chest, in terms of who will be addressing the parliamentary party at the 18th century mansion-turned-four-star hotel. One question that will not be on the agenda, but is certain to be on everyone's minds, is: has the summer break done anything to mend the bitter rift that split the party down the middle during Richard Bruton's failed leadership heave in mid-June?

As the Oireachtas broke up for its summer recess, Fine Gael TDs and senators were in broad agreement that the break was needed to allow everyone to re-group and let tensions calm. As the need for unity will be stressed by the leadership, the conversations around the fringes will really tell us whether time really is a great healer.


Where & when: Ardilaun Hotel, Co Galway, on 13 and 14 September

What to expect: Unlike the boom/bubble years, expect complaints from the media about the party's decision to house journalists in a separate hotel. Also expect complaints about the level of security at the event and protests from people in the west over HSE cuts in the region. Inside, there will be the usual murmurs about Taoiseach Brian Cowen's failings as a leader and the prospect of Brian Lenihan staging a leadership bid, but it is more likely that nothing will happen on this front.

The economy will the main focus of the agenda and cabinet ministers will use the 'think-in' as an opportunity to get backbench
TDs on board to sell the message that another austerity budget is crucial for the survival of Ireland Inc.


Where & when: The Abbey Hotel, Roscommon town, on 15 and 16 September

What to expect: Labour has already unveiled candidates for the next general election, such as former TDs Mae Sexton in Longford and Jerry Cowley in Mayo. Don't be surprised if more candidates are revealed around the time of the think-in. The party is currently searching for more candidates and rumours abound that it is looking for celebrity candidates, like a former inter-county hurler from Clare, for example.

The agenda is still being finalised but the emphasis will be on job creation in sectors such as "small business, tourism, indigenous manufacturing and other areas". While Labour is in good health and opinion polls keep showing Eamon Gilmore as the most popular party leader in the country, one issue that may be discussed on the fringes is the way all the focus is on Gilmore. There is a feeling among some TDs that there is too much focus on the party leader and, apart from Joan Burton, the rest of the front bench are operating too deeply in his shadow.


Where & when: The Lord Bagenal Hotel, Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow, on 17 September

What to expect: The Greens will face into the new Dáil term with a bounce in their step as the period before the recess saw them push legislation through the Dáil on issues such as dog breeding, stag hunting and civil partnership. There is a sense within the party that while the public did view the Greens as merely propping up Fianna Fáil in government, they made some progress recently, and they will be eager to continue in that vein. The party will look forward to implementing legislation dealing with issues such as appointments to public bodies, a ban on corporate political donations and the new Dublin mayor in the new Dáil term. It has been suggested that the Greens now have a few trophies, such as the stag hunting ban, to show off to the electorate in an election campaign.

But the reality is that they are in PD territory in the opinion polls and would face wipe-out in an election, so they are unlikely to even whisper about an exit strategy until the think-in in autumn 2011.


Where & when: Gresham Hotel, Dublin, on 20 September

What to expect: Like the Green Party, Sinn Féin has also opted for a one-day think-in. The focus for the day will be a discussion on the jobs crisis and how jobs can be created. The speakers have yet to be confirmed but the party is hoping to have a representative of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU) deliver an address.

The party will also discuss the forthcoming budget, have a discussion on how an alliance of the left can go forward and put contingency plans for an early general election in place. Plans on how the party can make itself more relevant in the south may feature here too.