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John Drennan: Mighty Fianna Fail wakes up as an ordinary little party

ON Friday, as Micheal Martin respectfully told his Taoiseach it would be a grand thing entirely if he were to listen to his backbenchers during Mr Cowen's curious "consultative" exercise, he sounded like a man who is very sure that he has the votes in the bag and that the string is pulled tight.

It would be a stroke that would even impress Bertie if Martin does secure the leadership of Fianna Fail through a bloodless coup.

Many, however, are puzzled that the cautious Cork Dauphin has seemingly moved to secure the prize before the election. Micheal is, after all, a man who is very fond of conventional wisdom -- and that suggests it would surely be better for him to wait until after the election to secure the rotting crown.

His concern, however, was summarised by the mordant comment of a senior party figure two months ago that "our best chance is to run with the line that we need a strong opposition".

Like many a thing said in jest, it contained a bitter truth -- for Fianna Fail is engaged in a desperate battle with Sinn Fein to lead the Opposition in the next Dail.

And if Mr Cowen remains in charge there is a real possibility that Fianna Fail might actually lose this battle.

After a turbulent first week involving the flinging of quite a few custard pies, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility Mr Cowen could go missing until the leaders' debates.

But even there, any advantages Fianna Fail might secure are likely to be eroded by the crowded format which could see Enda winning on soundbites, with Biffo coming fourth behind Gerry Adams.

So what sort of an inheritance could Michael Martin wake up to on the morning of the count?

On Cowen's last day as leader, nothing epitomises FF's performance more than the bellwether constituency of Dun Laoghaire where Mary Hanafin polls a respectable 6,000 votes. Barry Andrews' 3,000 first preferences means Fianna Fail is just 2,000 votes short of the quota. But a terrible transfer from Andrews means Hanafin loses out to Celebrity Socialist Richard Boyd Barrett by 40 votes.

One putative leader is down, but it is, alas, only a portent of things to come, for as is always the case with all dying elites, the devastation is worst in the capital.

In Dublin Central, a final act of vengeance by the Drumcondra mafia means Mary Fitzpatrick loses out -- and no, Cyprian Brady, the 900-vote miracle man of 2007, does not survive either.

Meanwhile in a reprise of Fine Gael's 2002 'Noonan meltdown', Fianna Fail is excised from the capital's political landscape. The Haughey, Lenihan, Ahern and Andrews dynasties all tumble.

It does not come as that much of a surprise that Conor Lenihan, another of the bright lights of the class of '97, loses out to Sean Crowe, but the greatest shock of all is reserved for Dublin Mid-West where the electorate thank Brian Lenihan for his courage and then elect a little-known anti-third-level-charges Independent.

As the flower of Fianna Fail's front bench fall,only three trembling deputies survive. Chris Andrews is spared because of his propensity to go line dancing with old dears in Dublin; Michael Kennedy wins a seat essentially by accident, while John Curran only gets in because the alternative is Paul Gogarty.

In Donegal, Thomas Pringle, the Independent, Greenish former Sinn Fein candidate takes out Mary Coughlan, courtesy of a recount.

It is a rough day too for the rest of Mr Cowen's closest ones. In Galway West, Frank Fahey loses out while Batt O'Keeffe in Cork North West loses out to his Fine Gael doppelganger Derry Canty.

He is not alone, for in a real shock, Brendan Smith loses out to Sinn Fein in Cavan-Monaghan.

There are of course isolated successes. Willie O'Dea is elected ahead of Sinn Fein's Maurice Quinlivan after a recount, while Niall Collins, Timmy Dooley and Dara Calleary also survive.

But Martin Mansergh fights the good fight and goes down with scarcely a ripple in Tipperary South where Mattie McGrath tops the poll.

In Wicklow, a Sinn Fein surge means Fianna Fail doesn't win a seat, Dick Roche is defenestrated by the voters while the much touted Young Turks are also annihilated.

Along with Darragh O'Brien in Dublin North, in Meath East the Sinn Fein surge takes out Thomas Byrne, while Michael McGrath in Cork South Central at least has the consolation of seeing his elimination elect the very contrasting figures of Fine Gael's Jerry Buttimer and Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin.

It isn't just the 'Young Ones' either for in Carlow Kilkenny John McGuinness is pipped at the post by Bobby Aylward who issues an immediate statement of intent about the future leadership of the party.

Bobby doesn't want it.

At least Fianna Fail does win a seat in Mr Cowen's constituency of Laois Offaly, where the Taoiseach comes in second behind Charlie Flanagan. The bad news is that this is the only seat it wins here. It is indeed a bitter day for Biffo as he watches Sinn Fein's Brian Stanley being chaired around the count to the politically sophisticated song of Ole Ole Ole.

More bitter moments are to follow. In Kildare North, both the party's seats are lost while in Kildare South another dynasty falls, courtesy of the loss of Sean Power's seat.

Fianna Fail is not just expelled from the commuter constituencies. It is also excised from huge swathes of Munster. There are no seats for it in Tipperary or Kerry, where Jackie Healy Rae dances a jig of delight when after four recounts, John 'the Bull' O'Donoghue is defeated by seven votes by Michael Healy Rae.

In Kerry South, the Invisible Fianna Fail man Tom McEllistrim also goes while the Sinn Fein/Fine Gael surge sees FF left without a seat in the heartland of Cork East.

Even Connacht Ulster is not safe: in Roscommon South Leitrim, Luke 'Ming the Merciless' Flanagan takes the seat formerly held by Michael Finneran.

Critically when it comes to resigning TDs such as Tony Killeen, Beverley Flynn, Jimmy Devins, Noel Dempsey, Rory O'Hanlon, Pat the Cope Gallagher, Bertie Ahern, Sean Ardagh and Dermot Ahern, none of their seats is retained.

As a series of Fianna Fail nonentities in Waterford and Galway East are dispassionately axed, the electorate does not differentiate between friends of Mr Cowen such as Frank Fahey and John Cregan and those who are not so friendly like Sean Power and John Browne. They are all dispatched with equal indifference.

The problem, you see is that the Fianna Fail brand is as toxic as the leader.

By the end of an astonishing day, as Noel O'Flynn and Peter Power bring the party's seat losses to 53 and the shocked remaining 25 Fianna Fail deputies huddle together under the new leader Eamon O Cuiv and his deputy Michael Martin, one thing is clear.

Fianna Fail is now just an ordinary little party rather than a great national political movement.

Sunday Independent