Electoral Armageddon for Fianna Fail
Party faces years in opposition as support collapses
MICHEAL Martin strode into the count centre to the deafening cheers of his supporters.
But the Fianna Fail leader -- only in the job for five weeks -- had the unmistakable air of a condemned man approaching the gallows.
Inside Cork City hall, he faced news that would make any party leader wince. And he would have to face it in the full glare of the media spotlight.
Fine Gael used to jokingly call Mr Martin 'the Dauphin', in a grudging nod to his obvious leadership credentials. And there was more than a whiff of guillotine in the air as the scale of the FF massacre unfolded.
The party is now facing the prospect of at least a decade on the opposition benches.
Heavyweights such as Mary Coughlan, Mary O'Rourke, John O'Donoghue and Barry Andrews all fell like dominos as three-quarters of its parliamentary party were wiped out in an electoral Armageddon.
Safe FF seats were as rare as corncrakes on the political landscape. Mr Martin could only look on in horror as the day's dramatic events unfolded on television.
Far from contesting a role in government, Mr Martin's FF was engaged in a desperate battle for political survival.
Their rivals weren't Fine Gael or Labour for coalition -- FF was now battling to keep Sinn Fein at bay so they could at least lead the opposition.
Mr Martin was also left with the conundrum of being Ireland's most popular political leader, yet having to lead a party that was about as popular as a case of bubonic plague.
Little wonder then that FF handlers were quick to point out that he has only been party leader for five weeks.
Mr Martin entered the count centre on Saturday night by passing between the bronze marble busts of two former Sinn Fein Lord Mayors -- Tomas MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney -- and some noted the symbolism of the moment.
One lord mayor was shot by British forces and the other died on hunger strike during the War of Independence. They remain potent Republican icons in Cork, which takes pride in its status as the 'Rebel County'.
As Mr Martin entered the count centre, Sinn Fein was preparing to elect its first TD for Cork city since 1924.
Councillor Jonathan O'Brien (SF) -- now a TD for Cork North Central -- was fighting his fifth election. His first, he recalled, saw him win just 400 votes. Last Saturday, he topped the poll ahead of such political heavyweights as former trade minister Billy Kelleher and Labour's Kathleen Lynch.
In Cork East, SF was making another historic breakthrough.
Councillor Sandra McLellan would win the fourth and final seat in Cork East -- ensuring that, for the first time in 80 years, one of Ireland's most rural and traditional constituencies would not return a single FF TD.
As the Martin cortege assembled in the Concert Hall, where the two city constituencies were being counted, the full chaos of General Election 2011 for FF was all too apparent.
Across the River Lee, only a high first preference vote and the loyalty of rural voters helped Billy Kelleher (FF) -- a key Martin ally -- to avoid losing his seat in a combined Fine Gael and left-wing onslaught.
This was Jack Lynch's old constituency and an area where, in 2002, FF managed to fill three of the five Dail seats.
When he became the first Cork city TD to be officially elected, Mr Martin was hoisted aloft by jubilant supporters in a gesture that smacked as much of defiance as relief.
The FF leader then began a wearying round of media interviews on the gallery overlooking the count centre -- while defiantly insisting that "the only way for FF now is up".
The physical weariness in Micheal Martin was readily apparent.
His tone was a mixture of reality, contrition for the mistakes FF made in office, and defiance as to the future of the party that had just been butchered at the ballot box.
FF tallymen seemed bewildered as to what to watch -- the unfolding collapse of the party's Cork vote, or the party's national annihilation being played out on television screens around the hall.