The annual ard fheis, or convention, last weekend of the party that once dominated Irish politics was a reminder of how far a once mighty political force has fallen.

In comparison with the huge Fianna Fail conventions of decades gone by, which used to set the news agenda for days, this was a small, muted affair which attracted little media attention., the biggest news website in the country, had nothing about it on Sunday night, unless you scrolled down and searched forever.

One media commentator said the convention was like going to Mass these days: The hall was half empty most of the time, and the scattered delegates in the largely vacant rows of seats were mostly members of the grey brigade rather than young soldiers of destiny.

The main hall in the RDS in Dublin did fill up for leader Michael Martin's address on Saturday night, but even then there was a deflated air in the aftermath.

It again begs the question: Is Fianna Fail finished?

Certainly at the moment the party appears to be going nowhere, condemned to the political wilderness by a population still very angry at what Fianna Fail did to the economy and the country. In spite of faint hopes of a revival due to widespread unhappiness at some of the things the government has been doing, the outlook for Fianna Fail remains grim.

The latest opinion poll last weekend put the party at 19 percent. In comparison, the main government party, Fine Gael, despite the water charges fiasco and other controversies, is on 25 percent.

Yet again this confirms that Fianna Fail has lost its place as the lead party of the country, possibly forever. The party remains stuck somewhere below 20 percent, with most polls over the last year giving them 17-18 percent.

With an election now less than a year away, that raises fundamental questions about a permanent shift in the shape of Irish politics. If these figures remain as they are, then Fianna Fail has no hope of being the biggest party after the next election.

It might not even be a significant enough player in the next Dail (Parliament) to lead an alternative government (in the latest poll Sinn Fein is at 22 percent). The "natural party of government" in future will be Fine Gael, not Fianna Fail.

It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of this change. Fianna Fail has been in government for 61 of the 79 years since it was founded in 1926.

Most of that time it ruled as a single party, and more recently as the dominant party in various coalitions. Its long standing claim to be the "natural party of government" in Ireland was no idle boast.

All that has changed. After the boom, bust and bailout Fianna Fail was almost wiped out in the last Dail election in 2011, coming back with just 20 of the 77 seats it had won in the previous Dail election in 2007. It received just over 17 percent of the vote in 2011 and has remained stuck around that level since then. And it's still stuck there as the latest poll has shown.

Martin, the party leader, has been doing his best, and it's hard not to admire his efforts. He is an able leader and a far more articulate debater in the Dail than Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny.

But his failure to get the party on a more upward trend is undermining him. Some of his Fianna Fail colleagues in the Dail are openly questioning his leadership, although there is no obvious replacement among them.

Although it did reasonably well in the mid-term local elections for local councils around the country, Fianna Fail is failing to make any headway in national opinion polls which would indicate how the party might do in the upcoming Dail election. The party remains on its knees, with no women TDs (members of the Dail) and not a single TD in the Dublin area where over a million people live.

Whatever way you look at it, the hard fact is that Fianna Fail is roughly in the same position as it was after the electoral meltdown it suffered in the election in February 2011.

Part of Martin's problem is that he was a senior minister in Fianna Fail administrations under Bertie Ahern and later Brian Cowen. So he is permanently tarnished in the eyes of the electorate, and his eventual resignation in January 2011 did not change that.

He was part of the Fianna Fail administration that worked out the bailout, cutbacks and recovery plan imposed by the EU/IMF, including the hated water charges and property tax. Since it is that austerity plan that has been implemented by the present government led by Fine Gael, it makes it very difficult for Martin to be critical of what this administration has done and is doing. He may quibble about details, but the bottom line is he signed up for it.

On top of that, the economy is now recovering and Fine Gael and Kenny are getting all the credit for "taking the hard decisions." In the run-up to the election, they will start to pay back the electorate as a reward for sticking with the austerity course -- and the fact that this will be tantamount to buying votes is just a coincidence, of course.

The government already has agreement from the EU that they can ease off on spending controls in the next budget, and last weekend the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan let it be known that there will be €1.5 billion available to give back to the electorate. There is also talk of widespread pay increases for all state workers (teachers, nurses, police, etc.). All of this will build the feel good factor in the run-up to the election and make Fianna Fail's chances of significant recovery very difficult.

At the moment Fianna Fail's main line of attack is that Fine Gael has become too right wing and has imposed too much austerity on ordinary people. That may be true, but once the giveaway starts and the purse strings are opened the Fianna Fail line is not going to have much impact.

Another big problem for Fianna Fail will be the way the government will spin the upcoming election as a straight choice between the present administration and one that would include Sinn Fein. It's either Fine Gael or Sinn Fein, voters will be told.

The mass of middle class voters in Ireland who fear Sinn Fein and abhor the IRA/Sinn Fein record will be told that the only sure way of keeping the Shinners out of government will be to vote for the present government, and particularly for Fine Gael.

In this scenario, Fianna Fail may be marginalized in the minds of voters, not least because they are seen as the most likely coalition partners for their fellow republicans in Sinn Fein. Which would mean that the middle class voters who swung from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael in the last election will not swing back. And as a result Fianna Fail will remain a diminished rump in the Dail, possibly facing extinction.

Would that be such a bad thing? It might mean that Fianna Fail would accept the inevitable and join in a coalition government with Fine Gael, thereby finally ending the old division that began with who accepted the treaty when the state was being formed a century ago. Could anything be more appropriate in the centenary year of the 1916 Rising?

Such a coalition would probably lead to eventual amalgamation. These days there is no real difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael on Northern Irish policy, or on anything else for that matter, including economic and social policy.

Both are centrist parties. If they finally get together, it would at last free up Irish politics to divide into classic left and right politics which is the norm in most other countries in Europe.

The Labor Party is struggling badly and is likely to lose many of its seats in the upcoming election as Sinn Fein blames it for being part of this government and implementing austerity. A realignment of Irish politics might be good for Labor since it would force it to offer a genuine left wing alternative, possibly including Sinn Fein and its socialist policies.

But the big pay off from a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael coalition would be that it would expose Sinn Fein. The raison d'etre of Sinn Fein -- the North and the reunification of Ireland -- is much less important to Irish voters than it once was. That's why Sinn Fein these days concentrates almost exclusively on economic issues, offering high tax and high spend solutions to everything, with little consideration of what that might do to the economy.

A long spell on the opposition benches might force them to drop the far left rhetoric and come up with real, costed economic policies. It might also teach them that the north just does not matter that much any more to most people in the south.