| 5.7°C Dublin

David Quinn: Careless voters could make a disastrous situation worse

When you get rid of one regime, be extremely careful to replace it with something better. Egypt is about to get rid of Hosni Mubarak. They should get rid of him. But he might be replaced by something worse, namely a radical Islamist government. Do we really want Egypt to become another Iran?

We have gotten rid of Brian Cowen (who wasn't quite as bad as Mubarak, contrary to some media reports). It's right we got rid of him, but we have to be extremely careful to replace him with something better because we could replace him with something worse.

The decline of Fianna Fail is being met with considerable glee by all those who mightily -- and sometimes rightly -- resented the way it lorded it over Ireland for so long. I would hesitate to guess whether Fianna Fail or the Catholic Church has made more enemies in Irish life down the years.

I'm Fine Gael by tradition, going back to my grandfather, but apart from a brief period in the 1980s when I first started voting, I've never had that tribal dislike of Fianna Fail that some Fine Gael supporters have.

In that brief period, if someone had told me that in another 25 years Fianna Fail would shrink to being the third, or even the fourth party in the land, I'd have broken out the bubbly.

Fianna Fail deserves to be thoroughly trounced in the upcoming election. At a stretch, it might even deserve annihilation. But suppose something worse rushes into the resultant vacuum?

Naively, we imagine that something bad can only be replaced by something better. In the real world, something bad can be replaced by something even worse. The permanent eclipse of Fianna Fail could indeed result in the rise of something worse, Sinn Fein, for example.

The decline of Fianna Fail has, in fact, been taking place for a long time. It can only dream of 1977, when it attracted more than half the vote. But paradoxically, its decline between then and now has actually resulted in it spending more time in power, not less.

This is because it discovered the dubious joys of coalition government and this has been a disaster for Fine Gael, consigning it to the political wilderness for almost 22 out of the last 24 years, the one interregnum being when John Bruton became Taoiseach courtesy of Dick Spring.

This has been extremely bad for the country. It would have been much better to have a straight choice between Fianna Fail on the one hand, and Fine Gael and Labour on the other.

That would have made it easier to show Fianna Fail the door.

The fact that it has taken a recession of epic proportions to ensure that Fianna Fail will finally be pushed through the exit tells its own story. Without a recession, would Fianna Fail have been in power for another two decades?

Disaffected Fianna Fail voters are now dispersing in all directions. Some are headed for Fine Gael, but far too many are headed for Labour, or Sinn Fein, or Independents. This is probably testament to Fianna Fail's legendary catch-all appeal, but it's bad news for the country because above all what we need is a new government that is both stable and coherent.

A Fine Gael/Labour government will have the numbers, but will it have coherence, and therefore, stability?

If Labour is serious about effectively chucking overboard our deal with the IMF and the EU -- as flawed as that might be -- then we will be dragged even further into the economic abyss, especially if Fine Gael and Labour have a stand-off about the issue.

The decline of Fianna Fail is, in fact, almost exactly analogous to the decline of the Catholic Church. The decline of religion in any society is going to leave a huge vacuum.

Religion provides meaning and purpose to many people, and if those who once had religion can't find meaning and purpose elsewhere, its replacement is nihilism.

Conor Cruise O'Brien used to worry that if the Catholic Church faded from Irish life, we would fail to replace it with a new, civic morality. He was a fierce critic of the church, but he was right to worry. Instead of a new civic morality, we got political correctness and the Celtic Tiger and looked how that's worked out.

Fianna Fail's decline is also leaving behind a huge vacuum. The party will recover, at least somewhat. But we have to hope that all those former Fianna Fail voters find a constructive way to use their vote, because there are plenty of destructive ways to use it. The worst is to vote for Sinn Fein, followed by a vote for Labour, which has taken up residence in the economic version of cloud cuckoo-land.

The best option is to vote for Fine Gael. At the very least Fine Gael needs to be sent into government with the highest possible number of seats so it can minimise the influence of Labour.

Irish Independent