Tough decisions ahead for partners in next coalition
Sam Smyth previews what lies in store for the political class in 2011
LONG before he finally and formally stepped down, the country had come to the end of the Bertie Ahern era. It has not been a pleasant experience but the former Taoiseach's official decision to step aside after so long in politics is, in its own way, a sign that we have to move on, that an era has closed forever.
So if brass neck and an international begging bowl were the must-have commodities for the Irish Republic to come though 2010 -- what will we need for 2011?
A pleasure spa to pamper loan-approval officers from the IMF and EU might be useful -- and gold-leaf lettering on our IOUs might impress others.
But nothing less than a brand-new beginning in public affairs is needed: a new administration in Government Buildings.
Oh, and there's a constitutional imperative -- another president required for Aras an Uachtarain. Will Bertie Ahern go for it? He remained circumspect on Thursday night as he announced his intention to end his career as a TD.
The truth is that good governments can't make citizens happy but a bad one can heap unfathomable misery on the people they govern.
It's easier with an Irish president, we don't really notice a bad one but a good one shines out like a kind deed in an indifferent world.
Right now we are within weeks of dispatching a really incompetent and jinxed Government and just months from saying farewell to an exceptionally capable and fine President.
The perceived wisdom is that Enda Kenny will be elected Taoiseach, with Eamon Gilmore as Tanaiste, following a General Election in March and that the Labour Party will get the Finance portfolio.
Yet Fine Gael hopes to trump its coalition partners by appointing a minister for public service reform, based in the Department of Finance and responsible for disbursing cash to the other government departments. Whether it is Michael Noonan or Richard Bruton will hardly matter to the Labour Party if they see the traditional role of Finance Minister being diminished.
There is now a secretary general (but no minister) for public service reform based in the Department of Finance and Public Service Reform (it is incorporated in the full name of the department).
Both Richard Bruton and Michael Noonan have said the Department of Finance is "not fit for purpose" so expect major changes -- and resistance -- in the Merrion Street citadel.
Clearly Fine Gael sees reform in the public service as crucial to renewing the State and the revolution will be won or lost in the battle for the Department of Finance.
Elbows are flying in the Labour Party as former leaders Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn eye the prize that Joan Burton considers hers -- Minister for Finance.
Eamon Gilmore appears to have no interest in taking it himself but appointing former Finance Minister Quinn would play best with the markets.
Pat Rabbitte's experience in Government will stand him above Joan Burton but the women in Labour will be very angry with Gilmore if he disappoints his finance spokeswoman.
While Enda Kenny and Fine Gael agonised over his leadership of the party, Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party stole a march on them.
By avoiding hard policy positions, the Labour Party leader became the country's favourite politician and his party threatened to eclipse Fine Gael.
But as the public began demanding answers, Labour's popularity began to slip, while Fine Gael was rewarded for its candid policy statements.
The Labour Party has taken much of the public sector workers' support from Fianna Fail but know that it must eventually disappoint its new voters if it is to deliver on public sector reform.
This grand coalition of Fine Gael and Labour will have less front bench places to offer than there are party grandees expecting seats.
There will be tears and tantrums as disappointments threaten to spoil the party.
For a few opinion polls it looked as if Fianna Fail would be humiliated and slip behind Sinn Fein to become the State's fourth most popular party.
It could still happen: the bounce for Sinn Fein in Donegal South-West when Pearse Doherty first won a court case and then a by-election was only a beginning.
The party's president, Gerry Adams, gave up his West Belfast seat in Westminster that he had never taken up and moved lock, stock and barrel to run in Louth in the General Election.
Sinn Fein hopes to become a prospective coalition partner for any party needing numbers to make it to government.
Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein have settled into a sleepy duopoly with the DUP and Peter Robinson in Northern Ireland where they appear as immoveable as the old Unionist Party.
Fianna Fail is pinning its hopes on getting more than 40 seats in a March election, skipping a generation and rebuilding the party from the opposition benches.
It will have a leadership election after the drubbing at the polls but don't be surprised to see young contenders such as Dara Colleary from Mayo throwing their hat in the ring.
Micheal Martin is odds-on to be next FF leader and Mary Hanafin may even withdraw and support him, although no one knows who will survive the wrath of the public in March.
No one is quite sure who will be visiting Barack Obama on St Patrick's Day but, given how fast his own fortunes have faded, Mr Obama may appreciate a quiet day in the White House.
As the crash-test dummy for the EU's new economic recovery programme, this Republic can expect to be patronised as the leaders attempt to fix a system that is fundamentally broken.
Ireland was profligate and foolish in borrowing but bankers from Germany, France and other wealthy EU states were just as reckless in lending.
The EU is punishing this State as an example to other smaller nations not to get too big for their boots -- yet it cannot address its own grave shortcomings.
There will be a General Election in weeks, although we cannot be certain of an election for the presidency later in the year.
When President McAleese steps down in October, the politicians may come up an agreed candidate to save themselves the bother of yet another election.