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Con Houlihan: Casualties of war in politics

Being head of Fine Gael is about as secure as being the manager of Chelsea Football Club: you can do all the right things, but that doesn't guarantee your tenure. The Grand Old Party has a genius for ripping itself apart. Peter Barry did nothing wrong; in fact, he did everything right, but he was ousted for no apparent reason. Alan Dukes was another spectacular casualty. His honesty brought him down.

In a speech in Tallaght one night, he advocated that the role of an opposition isn't to oppose but to co-operate with what it deems good and to oppose what it deems wrong-headed. This apostasy cost him dearly. And the party seemed to have found an excellent leader in Michael Noonan, but he came at the wrong time.

Fine Gael suffered badly in the general election in 2002. It was a disaster for the party and for Michael. It was left to Enda Kenny to rescue a ship that seemed holed below the waterline. He travelled all over the country to revive cumainn that seemed moribund and to refurbish cumainn that had lost their way. The fruit of his work was evident in the next election. Fine Gael got back to its old number of seats.

You would think Enda was in a good position, but he wasn't. Richard Bruton wasn't unduly loyal to him -- in fact, the opposite. And it was clear he was waiting for an opportunity to take over. It was like a rugby game in which Enda had brought the ball from his own line to within a few yards of the opposing line and there was Richard shouting for the score pass.

Two things happened in the recent opinion polls: Fine Gael showed a great increase, but Enda's personal poll declined. Richard called for a motion of no confidence. It was defeated and for the moment the leadership seemed concluded.

And yet it is far from that. There are many young people in the party who are convinced that they would make good prime ministers. And, of course, Richard is lurking in the long grass. If Enda's personal poll declines further, he may face another vote of no confidence. He is fighting on several fronts:

The woods are lovely dark and deep

But Enda has promises to keep

And miles to go before he sleeps

And miles to go before he sleeps.

Fine Gael has always boasted of being the pure, incorruptible party in Irish politics and has always put out its clean linen to dry in public. Three of its prime ministers retired with dignity -- John A Costello, Liam Cosgrave and Garrett FitzGerald. Fianna Fail have not been so fortunate: three of their prime ministers have left office, but not of their own volition -- Charlie Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. It is most unlikely that Brian Cowen will survive until the next election. That party, too, has a number of very ambitious young men and women.

When Brian recently reshuffled his Cabinet, he seemed to do so, not in the national interests, but in the interests of Fianna Fail. He brought Mary Coughlan nearer to him, because he feared her least. He put Mary Hanafin farthest away, because he feared her most. She may yet be our first female prime minister.

There is one curious aspect of the recent battle between Enda and Richard: an innocent bystander might think that the winner will be the next PM. It's hardly that way. The Labour Party is now in the ascendant and it will surely have a say in deciding who will be the next prime minister. It could be Joan Burton, bless her heart.

Few things are more powerful than fashion and we have seen Australia get its first female prime minister in the person of Julia Gillard. She has answered a very old question, which I have often mentioned here: should the Australians be content with their country as they have it or should they open up the vast outback to the mining industry? Julia's family moved from Wales in about 1945 and it is hardly a surprise that she has decided to open up the country. It will create a new and more powerful Australia.

Incidentally, it is one of the few countries in the world that hasn't suffered from the international recession. About a million people emigrated from Britain to the land of the Southern Cross at the end of the Second World War and it is likely that the mining exploration will see another wave. It should benefit our country.

Meanwhile, back at home, it is almost certain that we will see a new coalition after the next general election. The Green Party will find itself in a dilemma. Will it stay with Fianna Fail or will it join its natural comrades in the Labour Party? Its number of deputies is so small that if it makes what people deem to be the wrong decision, it could be wiped out.

It is amazing that it is doing so badly in the opinion polls. It probably lost ground when it voted for the part-abolition of the medical card. Then it faced two choices: it could resign and cause a general election, in which it might lose most of its seats or it could stay in government and lose its appearance of being a socialist party.

One factor is very important before the next general election: every citizen should be obliged to vote, as in Australia, and be obliged to carry a clearly verifiable ID card. The Register should be brought up to date, as far as possible. If we are to have democracy, let it be well founded.

It is all too easy to steal votes, especially owing to the vast housing estates where people hardly know their neighbours. To go to the polls and to find your vote stolen is a horrible experience. It should be made impossible. A driving licence isn't enough.

Democracy is so sacred a concept that it should be guarded rigorously.

Fogra: Best wishes to Richard O'Riordan -- he succeeded Sean Ward as editor of The Evening Press and would have made a very good one if the paper had not closed soon afterwards