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Historic shift in Ireland as dominant party falls

DUBLIN (Reuters) - The party that has dominated Ireland since its independence 90 years ago faced political oblivion Saturday as voters inflicted a historic mauling over its role in the country’s economic collapse.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny (R) is congratulated by supporters at the count centre in Castlebar, County Mayo, February 26, 2011. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Fianna Fail, whose leaders negotiated independence from Britain and peace in Northern Ireland during eight decades as Ireland’s largest party, looked set to come in a humiliating third with less than two dozen seats in the 166-seat parliament.

The shift could usher in a new era in Irish politics, opening the way for younger leaders focussed more on competing views of the modern state than the bitter legacy of Ireland’s 1922-3 civil war.

“It would be difficult to underestimate the historic scale of this collapse,” said Pat Leahy, a leading journalist and author of a history of Fianna Fail’s last 14 years in power.

“They have been the most successful political party in postwar Europe. This election marks a juddering end to that.”

After a decade of uninterrupted power, Fianna Fail had nowhere to hide when a vast real estate bubble burst in late 2008, pulling down the banking system and forcing the government to take a humiliating 85-billion euro (£71.4-billion) EU/IMF bailout.

The hasty retirement of the figures most associated with the collapse, including prime minister Bertie Ahern in 2008 and his successor Brian Cowen last month, did little to deflect a wave of anger at a party who schmoozed the developers and bankers who precipitated the country’s economic collapse.

“It has reaped the bitter and deserved reward for representing the interests of speculators and developers at the expense of the Irish people,” Socialist Party candidate Joe Higgins told national broadcaster RTE Saturday.

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As votes slowly trickled out Saturday from Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation, the full scale of the meltdown became clear.

Outgoing finance minister Brian Lenihan looked set to be the only party member to secure one of Dublin’s 47 seats, coming in a humiliating fourth place behind the hard-left Socialist party.

Political dynasties fell across the country. Sean Haughey, son of one of the party’s best known former leaders, Charles Haughey, and grandson of one of its most revered, Sean Lemass, looked set for defeat.

Conor Lenihan, son of a former deputy prime minister and brother of the outgoing finance minister, conceded defeat. So did his aunt, Mary O’Rourke.

Exit poll predictions of 20 seats, down from 78 four years ago would be the worst collapse ever recorded in Ireland.

That would leave the party competing for third place with another historic rival, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

“It was worse than they could have imagined,” said barrister and political commentator Noel Whelan. “Fianna Fail’s very survival is in question.”

Founded by Eamon De Valera in 1926, Fianna Fail -- the Soldiers of Destiny -- portrayed themselves as defenders of full Irish independence against those defeated in the civil war, represented by Fine Gael, who had been prepared to accept a lesser deal from Britain.

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Generations of Irish people voted according to their families’ civil war loyalties, paying little attention to the ideological differences between the two centre-right parties.

Fianna Fail, traditionally more working-class, always came out top, the largest party in every election since 1932 and in power for 61 of the past 79 years.

As these loyalties faded in recent years, the stunning economic success of the Celtic Tiger brought a wave of fair-weather voters to Fianna Fail. Those votes have now gone.

Most went to Fine Gael, but a large chunk also went to rejuvenated left-wing parties such as Labour and Sinn Fein, raising the prospect of a more traditional left-right divide in Ireland.

“It’s the end of civil war politics,” said Leahy. But what will replace it, he said, is not yet clear.

Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Alastair Macdonald