About five six or days into the election campaign, when things looked bad for Fianna Fail and very very bad for Bertie Ahern, I bumped into Brian Cowen after one of his party’s morning briefing.
Things aren’t look good, was my blatantly obvious observation to him.
Cowen immediately responded by evoking the 1994 All Ireland. For people from his home county, it will go down in history as the ‘four minute final’. Offaly were trailing Limerick by five points with only four minutes remaining. In a late blitz, they scored two goals and four points to pull off one of the most memorable – almost unbelievable - reverses of all time.
And this was its political equivalent. The first two weeks of the campaign were a disaster for Ahern and FF, as they struggled – and failed- to put the BertieGate mess behind them. On that Monday, Cowen himself came out fighting with an imperious performance, a bravura demoltion job on Enda Kenny’s contract.
It proved to be the springboard for his party’s last gambit – a two-pronged attack that traded on Ahern’s statesmanship on the one hand and a no-holds-barred attack on what they identified as Fine Gael’s weak point – Enda Kenny’s American-style ‘Contract for a New Ireland’.
That three-day period that began with Ahern’s Westminster speech and culminated in the TV debate on Thursday night between him and Kenny proved to be pivotal.
In the wake of the debate, the media said that Ahern had shaded the debate (though, in defence of the Irish Examiner, we said that Ahern was the conclusive winner). But it wasn’t until the Irish Times opinion poll was published the following Monday that the disconnect between the media and the public became evident. The public had declared Ahern an emphatic winner. It wasn’t just FF sophistry. Joe Public out there agreed that he had dismantled Kenny’s ‘Contract’.
That wasn’t the only disconnect between the media and the public. It seemed that many people out there just didn’t share the media’s preoccupation (a justified one, nonetheless) with his finances. If he had strayed offside, it is clear they were ready to forgive him. The people have spoken – to employ the electoral cliché – and have spoken in a language that is foreign to that of the media.
But did a late blitz really turn around – in the space of two days - a possible FF loss into the party’s most emphatic election since 1977? Whatever, FF clearly consolidated its position after the Ahern victory, and never looked back. While the media was taken aback by the Times poll on Monday, it is clear its own private polls were telling it the party was close to an overall majority. On Vincent Browne’s programme on polling night, pollster Sean Donnelly, who conducts private polls for FF, predicted 76 seats for the party. Donnelly doesn’t exaggerate. FF knew it was going to have a good election.
David Davin Power’s great quotation of an African proverb is the summation of this election: “When elephants fight, the grass gets grampled.”
Everything converged back to the two civil war parties. All the smaller parties have got squeezed, suffered reverses – and in the case of the PDs – are facing extinction in the face. The concentration to the civil war configuration was staggering. Labour made no gains and lost one or two. The Greens were expected to make three gains but instead found four of its six TDs fighting for survival. Sinn Fein bellyflopped – gained zero and lost one seat, that of Sean Crowe in Tallaght. Only three or four independents will return. There will be no Joe Higgins. And as for the PDs, they have been salamandered – with only two TDs likely to return to the 30th Dail.
At the time of writing FF look good for 79 or 80 seats. In the cockpits of Dublin and Cork , it has retained comfortably – only in Bertie Ahern’s Dublin Central (where the vote management was lousy) is it in danger of losing.
It has also been a good election for FG but only in relative terms. It will ensure that Enda Kenny should be given the nod to continue leadership. For Pat Rabbitte and Trevor Sargent, there is much more uncertainty.
For Bertie Ahern, there is no such uncertainty. He has made history, a three-term Taoiseach with the prospect of serving for 15 years – an unprecedented feat for a leader in an age of political obsolescence.