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History is made as huge FG surge wipes FF off map


In what can be properly described as a defining moment in the history of the nation, Fianna Fail has suffered its worst ever defeat in a General Election, the outcome of which has, in an almost apocalyptic fashion, swept away 90 years of civil war politics in Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour are the big winners in what amounts to a political earthquake, but a large number of Independent TDs are also likely to enter the 31st Dail.

Early yesterday, before the first votes were counted, a consensus -- later assisted by the prospective Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan -- was gathering momentum that Fine Gael and Labour will form a coalition government with a majority of around 30 seats.

Last night, Fine Gael Director of Elections Phil Hogan, said the party was "still in play" in a number of constituencies with a new dimension of transfers from Fianna Fail which would give Fine Gael a boost which might see it win 78 to 82 seats. "Fine Gael has a number of options, not just coalition with another party," he said.

There is an influential body of opinion within Fine Gael urging that it should explore all options and possibly strike out on its own to form a government with the Independents, over 20 of whom will also be elected.

Last night, Senator Shane Ross, the newly elected Independent TD in Dublin South, made the most serious offer of support for Fine Gael by Independents to date. Declaring that the electorate had voted for reforming and radical policies, he said there would be group of up to "eight like-minded" Independents who would form a group to support a minority Fine Gael Government.

As of late last night, a Sunday Independent panel of experts was predicting that Fine Gael would win up to 77 seats, seven short of what is required to form a majority government, and that Labour would win 38. Fianna Fail may win 19 and Sinn Fein 14.

In the short term, the focus of the body politic will be on the number of Independents elected: our experts predict they will win around 18 seats, among whom would be enough TDs to see Fine Gael over the line if a deal is reached. Independents such as James Breen (Clare); Sean Canney (Galway East); Noel Grealish (Galway West); Michael Lowry (Tipperary North); Shane Ross (Dublin South); Tom Fleming or Michael Healy-Rae (Kerry South); Catherine Murphy (Kildare North); Luke 'Ming' Flanagan (Roscommon/South Leitrim); Finian McGrath (Dublin North-Central); Mattie McGrath (Tipperary South); Stephen Donnelly (Wicklow), and Thomas Pringle (Donegal South-West) are thought to be amenable to an arrangement.

While Labour is keen to get into government, there is also a view in the party that it should not do so at any cost, and that it must be able to exert sufficient influence.

Similarly, there are significant concerns in Fine Gael that Labour may seek to exact too high a price in terms of cabinet positions and on policy issues.

Even at this stage, however, both Fine Gael and Labour will be looking to the next election in its decision-making process in the belief that a functioning coalition may enhance the prospect of securing a second term.

The relegation of Fianna Fail from the largest to, at best, the third-largest political party in the State -- from which it will struggle to fully recover -- was widely anticipated. The other government party, the Greens, faces total wipeout. But as the first results came in yesterday, it was the uniform, widespread scale of the decimation of Fianna Fail that was utterly stunning.

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Upon its formation almost 85 years ago, Fianna Fail has been the dominant force in Irish politics and has exercised virtually unbroken control over the apparatus of the State almost as a self-given right. But all of that has counted for nothing, swept away on a tidal wave of public anger fuelled by the ravages of a recession that has engulfed the country for three years.

Yesterday, a politics professor at Trinity College, Dublin, Dr Michael Marsh, told how a young man was first to vote at the polling station in Balscadden, north Dublin, shortly after it had opened at 8am on Friday -- and then went to the airport to emigrate to the US.

FF is facing wipeout in Dublin, but for the election of the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, who became quite emotional at a count centre in Blanchardstown yesterday as he contemplated what has happened to Fianna Fail. The party is expected to win around 20 seats nationwide, a result which, indisputably, would once have been unimaginable for a party which has proudly likened itself to a political movement, a mirror of the soul of the nation.

There are likely to be several constituencies where FF will not have any representation for the first time since 1932, among them Dublin Central, the base of former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

In the main, the beneficiaries are Fine Gael, in particular, and also Labour, the two main parties in opposition, which are in all likelihood expected to form a coalition government by March 9.

But a notable feature of the election is the host of Independent candidates of every hue to the left and right of the political spectrum, who will also be elected on the back of general disillusionment with mainstream politics.

Last night, Mr Hogan, a TD for Kilkenny/Carlow, held out the possibility that Fine Gael may yet form a government without Labour, possibly with a number of Independents. "No party leader should rule out any possibility until the final outcome," he said.

An influential figure with the leader, Enda Kenny, Mr Hogan is of the view that Fine Gael will get a sizeable transfer of votes from Fianna Fail candidates when they are eliminated, of itself a relatively unprecedented event, and that these transfers would lift Fine Gael to within touching distance of single-party government.

In the event that Fine Gael in unable to negotiate a Programme for Government with Labour, the option remains open to try to form a government with Independent TDs, many of whom have scored spectacular victories, most notably Shane Ross, who won more than 17,000 first preference votes and swept in on the first count.

Afterwards, Mr Ross spoke of the possibility that a new force in politics had been "unleashed", and he opened up the possibility that he, and other Independents, would be willing to negotiate with FG to form a government.

However, it is uncertain at this stage if such a disparate group of Independent TDs would be in a position to organise quickly to influence control over the make-up of the new government.

The successful Labour TD, Pat Rabbitte, has said, however, that he would "not count any chickens" when asked if it was now inevitable that Fine Gael and Labour would form a government.

The Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, who topped the poll in Dun Laoghaire, said afterwards that a coalition government with Fine Gael was the most likely outcome, but he said he would not like to make a final call on that until all of the results were in.

Mr Noonan said: "Certainly if it were possible to negotiate an acceptable Programme for Government it would give a lot of stability at present.

"I'm not a great believer in working with a handful of independents because they are usually high maintenance and it's difficult to ensure stability. It depends how close we are to 83 seats."

It will be left to Fianna Fail to lead the opposition, an important role in a parliamentary system, but one which the party may achieve almost by default.

Sinn Fein, the socialist republican party with a history in terrorism, has also polled reasonably well but without securing a notable breakthrough. It will, however, win seats in the double figures, and with more hard-line Independent TDs, may seek to usurp Fianna Fail as the leaders of the opposition.

If that were to happen, it would prove the final humiliation for FF, which will see many of its leading figures defeated, including many from famous political dynasties.

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