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Ireland's current Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. Party: Fianna Fail. Elected: 1 term (2008-present) Photo by: Julien Behal / PA Wire / PA Phot

The end of Fianna Fail?

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Ireland's current Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. Party: Fianna Fail. Elected: 1 term (2008-present) Photo by: Julien Behal / PA Wire / PA Phot

The Irish Times national opinion last week showed that the main opposition party Fine Gael has now taken a huge lead over Fianna Fail. 

Fine Gael support is up to 38% of voters, while Fianna Fail support is down to a miserable 21%. Even more dramatic was the poll finding that satisfaction with the government has slumped to a record low of 10%, with a massive 86% of voters now expressing dissatisfaction with the Fianna Fail-led coalition.   (Presumably the other 4% of voters are so depressed they can't be bothered expressing an opinion one way or the other.)   

For Fianna Fail, a satisfaction rating of 10% is almost unthinkable. For the party that has dominated Irish politics for several generations, this is real humiliation.   

But it goes beyond that.  It goes beyond the current public anger at the implosion of the Irish economy and the electorate getting payback on the party in power.  That is a big factor, but this rating is so low it indicates abandonment as well as revenge.  

What it means is that we could be seeing a fundamental shift in Irish politics, a shift that is not temporary but permanent.  Fianna Fail, the once mighty party that has ruled Ireland for so long, the natural party of government here, may have reached the end of its time.  We could be seeing the start of a realignment in Irish politics that will run for decades.  

Those of you who are from this side of the pond will immediately grasp the significance of this.  For those of you who did not grow up here, let me fill in the background a little. 

Throughout my lifetime, Fianna Fail has run Ireland with a grip almost as tight as the communists used to have in the USSR.  Like the commies, it was as much a national movement as a political party.  

Yes, there have been a few times now and then when a coalition of opposition parties would sneak into power for a few years, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule.  Ireland really belonged to Fianna Fail.  

In fact to many people here, it was synonymous with the country.  For supporters of the party, to be really Irish you had to be Fianna Fail.  It was almost like a religion.  Anything else was suspicious, slightly West British.  

Fianna Fail, Catholicism, the Irish language and the GAA were the four pillars of Irishness -- and the most important of these was being part of Fianna Fail. 

The party was begun by Eamon de Valera, the Republican founding father, 1916 Rising and War of Independence leader who opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 because it left the North to the Unionists. De Valera led the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War which followed independence. 

They were defeated, and while the rest of his old Sinn Fein colleagues got on with building up the new state,  de Valera and his followers were in the wilderness.  By 1926 he realized that having failed to beat them, it was time to join the system and he started a new party, Fianna Fail.  

The new party announced that it would take seats in the Dail, the Free State Parliament it had tried to undermine because it only represented 26 of the 32 countries in Ireland.  De Valera and Fianna Fail said they would join the Dail, but that their main aim remained the re-unification of the national territory, along with the restoration of the Irish language to everyday use and the redistribution of wealth in the country. 

The populist message was effective, and Fianna Fail came to power in 1932.   That was 77 years ago and the party has been in power ever since, apart from 17 years (divided into six short periods) in which Fine Gael and other opposition parties got in for a few years at a time.  

Since 1989, Fianna Fail has had to share power with other smaller parties, but there never has been any doubt about who is calling the shots. 

As I said, it is a record of power that is only eclipsed by the comrades in Russia.  Not for nothing do Fianna Fail supporters see the party as personifying the nation.  You could say that Fianna Fail wrote the book on Ireland (it was Fianna Fail which oversaw the introduction of the new constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, in 1937).

More recently, Fianna Fail has been in power continuously (first under Bertie Ahern and now under Brian Cowen) since 1997.   In fact, with the exception of just three years, Fianna Fail has been in power continuously since 1987, which is 22 years ago.  

Power corrupts, as they say, and when you're in power that long, corruption, a presumption of a right to preference and a right to govern, creeps in.  

The equivalence of what is good for the nation and what is good for Fianna Fail became interchangeable for some powerful supporters of the party in recent years.  It was particularly evident in the boom and in the property bubble.  Which is how we got ourselves into the mess we're in right now. 

What seems to be happening among voters now -- reflected in this disastrous national poll for Fianna Fail -- is that there is a growing realization that the country is facing such a crisis that a new approach is necessary.   They see Fianna Fail as largely to blame for the boom and bust we have suffered, and they are unconvinced that the party has the vision and the leadership to get us out of the mess.  

Brian Cowen as taoiseach (prime minister) has not lived up to expectations, even if he is carrying a problem that predated his arrival in power.  So Fianna Fail are facing a wipe out in the local and European elections next month, and also face losing a couple of now empty seats in the Dail which will be filled on the same day. 

The general election here is not due until 2012 and Cowen could conceivably hang on until then.  But without the moral authority to govern it will be increasingly difficult for him. 

With the enormous economic problems facing us now, including rescuing the banks and getting control of the state finances, huge cutbacks are coming down the tracks. People have little confidence in Cowen and his team to lead us through this.  

Fine Gael, on then other hand, are seen as having the better economic team, helped greatly by their recent recruitment of the former economics correspondent of RTE, George Lee, as a candidate.  

Given this poll, there seems little doubt that Fianna Fail is beyond recovery now, even if Cowen hangs on for a couple of years before having a general election. 

The bigger question is whether we are at the start of a major realignment in Irish politics, where governments for the foreseeable future will be headed by Fine Gael, the people who founded the Free State to begin with all those years ago. 

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