Four years ago, when Fianna Fáil was returned for a third consecutive stint in office, electoral pundits could barely find enough superlatives for the role played by Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen in the party’s triumph. Ahern, they said, was a ‘political tsunami’, and Cowen, if anything, even more formidable. This time around, neither Ahern nor Cowen was standing, rightly fearing the vengeance of the electorate. Cowen’s awe-inspiring competence now seems a quaint legend of the barely remembered past, as difficult to credit as the notion that Irish people could once hear de Valera speak of ‘the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens’ without sniggering. Ahern, Cowen’s predecessor as taoiseach, who was lucky enough to be turfed out just before the economic storm broke, used his final appearance in the Dáil to explain what he regretted most about his time at the wheel: the failure of a self-aggrandising stadium project in Dublin, nicknamed the ‘Bertie Bowl’, which had led his own coalition partners to compare him to Nicolae Ceausescu. With this mea culpa went the news that the man of the people would be drawing a pension of almost €160,000 for his endeavours as taoiseach.
Cowen and Ahern were the most prominent members of the Fianna Fáil hierarchy to dodge the electoral guillotine, but they were joined by other party leaders who got their retirement in early, sparking fears that there would be no prominent scalps on display after the votes were counted. We needn’t have worried: every remaining FF bigwig, with the exceptions of the new party leader, Micheál Martin, and the outgoing finance minister, Brian Lenihan, was cleared off the stage on polling day. Tumbling from 77 seats in 2007 to 20 this time – and from 19 to one in the nation’s capital – Fianna Fáil was punished as thoroughly as anyone had dared imagine possible.
While journalists were naturally captivated by the demise of the major players, I was more intrigued by some of those taking their seats: people I’m used to hearing speak at left-wing forums with a couple of dozen other stalwarts to listen to them – the likes of Séamus Healy, Richard Boyd Barrett and Thomas Pringle, all now catapulted into the Dáil with a mandate to disturb the political peace. While the Fianna Fáil aristocracy were punching their cards at local meetings and stealthily ascending the party ladder, these newcomers spent their time debating the relevance of Trotsky’s transitional programme or stomping round the Occupied Territories in the company of the PFLP. If you had told the now-vanquished Soldiers of Destiny that they would one day be supplanted by such incorrigible fantasists, laughter would have been the least of their reaction. As one of Ahern’s closest political friends noted in a very different context, the kaleidoscope has been shaken and the pieces are in flux. Will they settle again soon – before the Irish have reordered the world around them?
The big winners, of course, were Fine Gael, whose ambition to transform society begins and ends with their own place in the pecking order. Fianna Fáil is a fascinating party: its remarkable electoral record, its evasion of the usual European categories, and its sheer effrontery make it a pleasure to read and to write about. Fine Gael is more of an afterthought: once you’ve considered the achievements of FF and the shortcomings of the Irish left, Fine Gael is what remains.