The electorate has not simply spoken. It has made a series of statements which are eloquent, complex and telling. It will take time and much analysis to derive a full comprehension of what lies behind the election results. Perhaps only one thing is absolutely clear at this stage. Fianna Fáil is back in government.

It is a considerable achievement for Mr Ahern and for the party. There are many things wrong in today's Ireland. But for the great majority of people, life is better than before. There is no forced emigration. There is work for all. Above all else, there is more money. Hospital waiting lists, crime, infrastructural chaos and revelations of sleaze do not outweigh that.

Extraordinary changes have been wrought on the political landscape but with relatively little change in certain key voting patterns. Fianna Fáil's share of the overall vote rose by just over 2 per cent. Fine Gael has been pulverised. Yet the drop in its vote has been little more than 5 per cent.

Proportional representation has operated with signal efficiency to garner additional seats for the smaller parties - Progressive Democrats, Greens and Sinn Féin. And it has given voice to concern and anger over health, yielding perhaps as many as five seats to health-related candidates such as Kathy Sinnott in Cork and Dr Liam Twomey in Wexford. There is a paradox in the triumph of the Progressive Democrats. They are part of the outgoing Government and may yet be in the next one. But the mandate they received from the electorate is, in effect, to police Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael and Labour not only failed to convince the voters that they could provide a government. They also failed to persuade them that they could be an effective opposition.

The situation now facing Fine Gael is grave beyond words. Mr Michael Noonan's immediate resignation as leader was dignified and necessary. But the problems facing the party go far beyond the leadership. If Fine Gael cannot swiftly define a new identity and purpose for itself, it will be consigned to history in a few short years. The voters are telling it they cannot see its relevance in today's Ireland.

It is not that there are no issues - the election of issue-based candidates across the State is proof of it. But the voters do not believe that Fine Gael, Labour or any other combination will make any better hand of things than the outgoing administration. In the long run, that is not good for democracy. A vibrant democracy and a fully accountable parliament should comprise more than a strong centrist bloc with a few minority clusters on the opposition side.

There will be mixed feelings about the performance of Sinn Féin. The metropolitan perspective on Mr Martin Ferris's success in Kerry North is shock and horror. Many are deeply disquieted by his heading the poll against a background of Sinn Féin vigilanteism and Mr Ferris's own subversive record. But it may equally be argued that it is good to have Sinn Féin advance in legitimate politics. It helps to reinforce the peace process and keeps republicans away from unconstitutional methods. Many Fianna Fáil and many Fine Gael grandfathers came into politics with a revolver in their pockets.