Miriam Lord: This was a FF election - not Fianna Fáil, but fractured and fragmented

For all the Left-wing celebration, a move to old ways leaves Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil brass neck and brass neck

There was a running theme throughout the 2016 General Election, one by one, successful candidates were hoisted on to supportive shoulders to celebrate above the masses. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Before breakfast, with a ballot box yet to be opened, The National Interest was taken down from the mantelpiece and dusted off.

This most precious of things.

Where to place it?

On the Political Landscape, of course.

There to be admired and fought over for the foreseeable future.

Two exit polls determined its re-entry into the election geography. They signalled the end of the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition, with a hung Dáil in prospect. All over the country, as the first boxes were opened and tallied, that indication became reality.

It meant a near wipeout for the Labour Party and a humiliating rejection for Fine Gael and its smug reliance on crude statistics.

The outgoing Government was learning the hard way that pride really does come before a fall. The public’s swift verdict left no room for doubt.

Radio silence kicked in from the twin bunkers of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste. It didn’t matter. On the day of a general election count, there is no hiding place. The prolonged lack of reaction from both quarters spoke volumes.

With gusto

Fianna Fáil

The Coalition scratched its head and sulked.

The combined forces of the anti-austerity opposition scratched its head and wondered why.

But across the divide, all agreed that this was definitely an FF election.

Not Fianna Fáil, but fractured and fragmented.

Initial reactions to the Government’s dismissal was greeted with much hyperbole over a perceived change in the political landscape.

“Earthquake!” “Seismic!” Such was the movement of the tectonic plates underneath Irish politics it sounded like the election count was being conducted over the San Andreas fault.

“We will link up with the reawakened working class movement!” declared Socialist Ruth Coppinger, who was returned to the Dáil as AAA-PBP Deputy for Dublin West. She spoke of the disenchantment of people “with the establishment parties”, and called for a new party to replace Labour.

And yet, for all the celebration among left-wing parties, the numbers told a different story. Those same establishment parties hadn’t exactly been routed.

The seat count showed a reversion to old ways. It was brass neck and brass neck between traditional rivals, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

The norm

Michael Noonan

So the landscape has changed. But an upheaval, creating new left-wing uplands? A new rising? Or, when the general election dust clears, will it reveal that the world is flat?

On late-night television at the end of the first day of counting, left wing academic Rory Hearne cast a dispassionate eye over the results. He noted an ideological shift among voters, now more centre-left than before, remarking that Fianna Fáil “stole the clothes of the left”.

But as he saw it: “there hasn’t been this massive swing to the left. We haven’t seen a full earthquake.”

Fianna Fáil was enjoying the tremors, that’s for sure. Party general secretary Seán Dorgan lost the run of himself entirely, pronouncing his party’s gains as their best result ever.

A downbeat Pat Rabbitte tried to explain what happened to the junior Coalition partner. Apparently there was “no great receptivity out there for Labour to explain its case”.

But while the political sages went about the task of dissecting the results – that’ll take some time – the business of electing a new Dáil unfurled in all its entertaining glory.

And for entertainment, and a masterclass in how to win elections in Ireland, the Healy-Rae clan outdid itself in Kerry.

Michael Healy-Rae and his brother Danny, a late entrant to the race, cleaned up with 2½ quotas between them. Had they fielded another relative, they might even have made it three.

With Lucinda Creighton’s Renua party obliterated, the wags were already heralding the arrival of a new political force in Leinster House – the Healy Rae-nuas.

Out in Dublin West, the scene mirrored the national picture. A Government party leader under severe pressure, Fianna Fáil coming back, a possible leader-in-waiting biding his time, a growing presence from the left and an unexpectedly muted performance from Sinn Féin.

It had been expected that Paul Donnelly would be one of Sinn Féin’s star performers. In the event, he was squeezed out by Ruth Coppinger. The party did very well, increasing its number of TDs, but not as well as had been predicted. Still, Gerry Adams, after a torrid campaign, expertly managed his huge personal vote in Louth to bring home his running-mate, Imelda Munster.

Much joy at the prospect of the Adams family and the Munsters pitching up in March in Kildare Street.

Labour leader and Tánaiste Joan Burton had a nightmarish day as she saw her party trounced. It was too much for some supporters at the count, who were in tears as they saw so many colleagues dismissed by the electorate.

“Cannibalised” was a popular word. Labour was eaten up by rivals to their left and by their stronger Coalition partner. But it happened to Fine Gael too, where Alan Shatter was cannibalised by the Greens. The very impressive Catherine Martin chewed him up in Dublin Rathdown.

Meanwhile, Leo Varadkar tried to keep it all low key as he topped the poll in Dublin West while his party struggled. Immediately after his election, one of the first questions was about his leadership intentions. What will he do if Enda Kenny resigns?

It’s not like he hadn’t thought about it, but Varadkar stuttered out a nervy reply. “I, I, I, don’t...” he began, before blurting, with a high-pitched laugh, “this is not happening! I certainly hope it doesn’t.”

People will look for scapegoats and they will look for saviours, he said, adding it wasn’t time to discuss such matters.

But that time will come.

And still no sign of Joan, who arrived very late at the count and had little to say.

Over in the RDS, where a number of Dublin constituencies were decided, Fine Gael had a better day. The results, perhaps, mirroring the general impression that the recovery is being felt in Dublin but not so much in the wider country.

The Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, was trying not to count his free-range organic chickens, although the early results looked good for him. He can’t forget that European election count in the same venue, where almost certain victory turned to defeat.

“I have Funderland shivers every time I come in here,” he shuddered. But he needn’t have worried. The Greens will be back with two TDs. Interestingly, it was the Greens who did for Alan Shatter this time. They did the same in 2002.

Róisín Shortall of the Democratic Socials romped home, the party returning its three existing TDs. She was dressed head to toe in Soc Dem purple. “I’m getting into my jeans tomorrow,” she sighed, with obvious relief.

Meanwhile, Maureen O’Sullivan pulled off a Lazarus act in Dublin Central, winning the last seat over promising Soc Dems newcomer Gary Gannon. She was so convinced she had lost that she was at home in East Wall having drinks with her election team when the call came through. O’Sullivan and her north inner city group were ecstatic.

Finished

There were no jokes among the Labour crew. Although Brendan Howlin’s election in Wexford brought some cheer. The diminutive Minister was hoisted by a burly supporter, holding him up by the waist, like he was little Simba in the Lion King.

He might yet be king. Or a kingmaker at the very least.

As the election shows, leadership matters. Micheál Martin proved that for Fianna Fáil.

And so to The National Interest. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil are inclined to go into coalition with each other. They say they promised the people that they would stay apart.

But the pressure is on.

Eamon Ryan suggested a different grand coalition yesterday morning. An alliance of the left, in the national interest.

He was nearly eaten alive.

A fascinating few weeks lie ahead. Maybe even another election.

Keep an eye on that landscape because, this time, there will be no exit poll to show what might materialise on the horizon.

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