The count was, in some blue-rinsed minds at least, to be a coronation but was an annihilation for Fine Gael and their coalition partner Labour. Just as Fianna Fáil were thrashed in 2011 when they lost 80% of their seats Fine Gael and Labour have paid a heavy price for unresolved and unacceptable social issues, failure to deliver on real reform, failure to confront self-interest groups in any meaningful way, a very uneven economic recovery, and an untenable disconnect with the life-defining problems facing too many Irish people.
No matter how it is dressed up the result is a personal humiliation for Mr Kenny and an indictment of his inner cabinet circle and closest advisors. It could well end his 14-year leadership and has cast a cloud over some of those who might have hoped to succeed him. Like so many political careers his seems destined to end in failure and, irony of ironies, he may leave the party in much the same condition as he inherited it in 2002. Like eaten bread his achievements will soon be forgotten and his legacy defined by this — for his party at least — disastrous election.
The other side of that coin is that anyone who expected Micheál Martin’s leadership to become an issue after the election has miscalculated. His leadership is secure for the medium term at least. Mr Martin has, by winning an entirely unexpected mandate, led the party to a rejuvenation that simply could not have been imagined five years ago. Unquestionably, his is the leadership achievement of this election. Fianna Fáil’s Lazarus act was as spectacular as Fine Gael’s implosion was disastrous and self-inflicted and Mr Martin can take considerable credit for it. The proposition that Mr Martin might be the first Fianna Fáil leader never to be Taoiseach and that Mr Kenny might be the first Fine Gael Taoiseach returned to office has been turned on its head in a way that redraws the map of Irish politics — the conservative, traditional centre-right half of that redefined map anyway.
The other half of that map is, as the cartographers of old might have said, uncharted territory and “here be dragons”. How the two halves of that map might, or could, work together to form a stable, effective government that could last some years is the great challenge of the coming weeks and maybe months — but only if something seismic does not happen to reshape the seemingly cast-in-stone relationship, if it can be called that, between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The strident pre-election declarations from nearly all parties ruling out coalition with nearly all available partners may have sounded like good, hard-nosed campaigning but may yet be seen as bad, limiting paint-yourself-into-a-corner politics.
An unprecedented number of smaller parties and independents, as well as an ever-stronger Sinn Féin have secured seats. Among that great tide of change there are indications that Ireland is a far more caring society, one informed by the kind of active social conscience, and one that would have been undermined by tax cuts. There is a powerful message in the fact that three founders of the Social Democrats — Roisin Shortall, Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly — topped the poll. Remember, this party refused to offer tax cuts but promised investment in public services. How might the Government have fared had it the courage to adopt a similar stance? They, and we, will never know. It is reassuring too that the Greens have a voice, albeit a minor one, in our parliament as, no matter how we look away, climate change is the pressing issue of our time and it has been given little more than lip service by Irish governments for far to long. We may not be, as a small country, able to do much to curtail climate change but we need to be far more active in preparing our country for it.
There are those on the left, and in Sinn Féin too, who believe that co-operating with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil would be a betrayal of their mandate. There is an honest logic to that position, they were not elected to sustain the status quo. However, those in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil — or Labour — who believe the dog-eared vanities that sustain their indulgent notion that they are utterly incompatible have no such luxury. Ireland is at a cross roads and the options are few and obvious. The two old parties of power must work out how they can form an effective partnership to take this country forward or we can surrender this country to socialist extremists whose policies would set us back decades, wreck our economy, and the social fabric it sustains.
The goal posts have been moved irrevocably and the two great rivals need to fight a different civil war. Together — for the sake of the country.