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John Drennan: Battle over corpse of FF diverts lost tribe from march to power

It appeared, initially that the election result had been set in stone by the RTE opinion poll, which said the State would collapse exhaustedly into the old familiar Fine Gael-Labour coalition routine.

But nothing has been certain since this campaign began and as the electorate attempted to forge a second Republic out of the dust and ashes of the collapse of the first, an astonishing prospect began to emerge.

The nature of the electoral battle was best defined by Fine Gael's Brian Hayes who noted that Fine Gael and Labour were "feasting over the carcass of FF".

Nobody expected the feasting would become so intense.

But on this day of shocks Labour and FG were chopping up the broken FF beast so intensely it looked as though the chewing would go down all the way to the entrails as Fine Gael and Labour fought it out even for the FF transfers.

The voters might have chased FF out of the country but as the day evolved their decision to destroy the previously dominant civil war party had an unexpected denouement. Astonishingly, the possibility began to evolve where conservative FF transfers could propel their Fine Gael rivals towards a single-party government.

An already-complex battlefield became even more complicated as Ireland experienced its own Independents Day.

The most high profile of those was Shane Ross in Dublin South, and Wexford's Mick Wallace -- who has been in politics for less than three wet weeks but still topped the poll.

And they were followed by an eclectic mix of United Left Alliance candidates such as Seamus Healy and Joe Higgins whilst more conventional (and, critically, more pliable) independents such as Tom Fleming, Thomas Pringle, Finian McGrath, Catherine Murphy and Sean Canney contended for seats that could decide the composition of the government.

SF also contended well. However, though figures such as Peadar Tobin (Meath West) and Eoin O'Broin performed above expectations and Mary Lou and Sean Crowe finally made it back to the mothership there was little justification for excessive celebrations.

When the FF house is tumbling down, SF would have wanted to achieve, at a minimum, a reprise of the sort of seat figures that followed the immaculate conception of the PDs in 1987.

In spite of the best efforts of the self-styled intelligentsia the real winners were Fine Gael. The party started strong and won a series of astonishing victories.

Meath East and Meath West captured the essence of the contest as seats that, even in the midst of the pre-election calamities, were believed to be FF certainties were swept away. FG took a big two out of three seats in both constituencies as the conflict there set the template for the rest of the election.

The great destruction of FF may have benefited FG and Labour. But like all lions feasting off the same carcass the duo quickly started to snarl at each other.

It was strange to watch an election where the real power game was between those normal coalition partners of FG and Labour, but in which Labour needed to snatch seats off FG rather than FF if they were going to secure a place, no-matter how humble, in government.

It certainly was the most special of days for the great lost tribe of Irish politics. When the children of Garret started their political careers in the 1980's they were 'Young Tigers' and Fine Gael were the future. Bright-eyed fellows like Enda, Michael Noonan, Richard Bruton and Cute 'Oul Phil Hogan -- for they were all young once -- were infused with great expectations.

Little did they know that FF would seize power after '87 with the mannerly determination of a python. As the life was squeezed out of their careers slowly and cruelly Enda, Phil and the rest became the disappointed children of Garret.

There was, of course, the brief Prague Spring of the Rainbow, and for Cute 'Oul Phil it was very brief, but that was cast away with his typical carelessness by John Bruton. Yesterday, however, the apotheosis of the disappointed children of Garret was reached.

Astonishing vote management meant FG was securing a stunning three out of five seats in Cute 'Oul Phil's constituency of Carlow Kilkenny. The new FF was also winning three out of five in Wicklow and at least contending for it in Laois Offaly and Wexford.

But the Labour rose was evolving into the thorn that was spoiling the otherwise perfect world of FG. They may have flattered to deceive before the campaign began but having stumbled and stuttered through the first two weeks of the great drama Labour then staged the most critical comeback of all as, in the dying hours of campaigning, they turned a weak Spring tide into a strong tide.

The party's success, particularly in Dublin, in retaining their public sector vote meant that they were on the point of securing vital second seats in Pat Rabbitte and Roisin Shorthall's constituencies. And they were stalling the FG charge in critical constituencies such as Cork South West, Kildare North and Tipperary South.

In contrast this was the election where the FF political dynasty finally learnt that, even in Irish politics, the old warning of 'dust thou art and to dust thou shall return' even applies to them.

Scarcely two short years ago the high point of the dynastic system was reached when the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, the Minister for Finance and ministers such as Mary Hanafin, Barry Andrews and Eamon 'dev Og' O Cuiv were all the scions of political dynasties.

On Friday, with the exception of O Cuiv and Lenihan, the enraged citizens of the country chased the FF dynasts into the dustbin of history. And even though Brian Lenihan was spared, when it came to the normally resilient Lenihan dynasty the voters took the axe to both Mary O'Rourke and Conor Lenihan. Astonishingly, Mary O'Rourke secured just over 5 per cent of the vote. All departures from political life are cruel.

Lenihan was not unique, for all of the much touted Ogra generation such as Niall Collins and Dara Calleary were fighting for survival.

FF is after this election buried in a Sadducees grave and will not be rising from it.

Mind you, when Fine Gael finish celebrating the demise of their old civil war enemies they would be wise to be careful -- they're coming for you next.

Sunday Independent