By Peter Geoghegan
in Dublin

Ireland’s new leader-in-waiting, Enda Kenny, last night launched a fierce attack on the outgoing government for being removed from the people.
As his party emerged the clear winner in the country’s general election, Kenny called on politicians to learn a lesson from the annihilation meted out to his rivals at the polls. He said the Irish people had strongly stated what kind of government they now want.

“The lesson is that government should never remove itself from the people,” Kenny said. “The people have voted with vigour and strength and they have given their answer – to remove the government.”

As Fine Gael celebrated, rivals Fianna Fail slumped to their heaviest defeat in their 85-year history.

As counting began yesterday, the scale of Fianna Fail’s collapse became quickly apparent. Having gone into Friday’s vote as the largest party in the Dail, the party that presided over Ireland’s catastrophic economic downfall looks likely to win as few as 20 seats in the next parliament.

Fine Gael, the centre-right party, are the big winners. According to an exit poll conducted by RTÉ, Kenny’s party secured 36.1% of the vote, a figure that would leave the party certain to form the next government but falling just short of an overall majority.

Phil Hogan, Fine Gael’s director of elections, warned that no-one should rule out single-party government.

“Anybody that writes it off so early, I think they’ll probably get a fright,” he said.

If they fail to win an overall majority, Labour are Fine Gael’s most likely coalition partners. The party came second in the RTÉ poll with 20.5% of the votes cast, their best ever election performance.

In the last general election, in 2007, Fianna Fail won more than 41% of the vote; this time around they polled 15%. A number of prominent Fianna Fail ministers face losing their seats including outgoing tourism minister Mary Hanafin, Brian Lenihan, the finance minister who oversaw the International Monetary Fund/European Central Bank bailout in November, and deputy leader Mary Coughlan.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, who gave up his West Belfast seat in Westminster to stand in the election, topped the poll in Louth. Sinn Fein also celebrated success in Dublin and Cavan/Monaghan.

Independents polled particularly well, taking 15.5% of votes cast to push Fianna Fail into fourth place. A Fine Gael minority government supported by independents remains a possibility as candidates such as Michael Lowry in Tipperary North and Jackie Healy-Rae in Kerry attracted significant support.

The Green Party was punished for its unpopular coalition with Fianna Fail.

Polls put support for the party at just 2.7%, although the Greens may yet retain one of their six seats depending on the allocation of transfers late in the count.

Frank Flannery, Fine Gael’s deputy director of elections, hailed an historic victory for his party. ‘We will be far and away the biggest party in the Dail for the first time ever,’ he said. ‘It’s pretty disastrous from Fianna Fail’s point of view.’

Enda Kenny will be elected Taosieach, with Labour leader Eamon Gilmore the most likely candidate for the position of deputy prime minister.

A new administration is expected to be in place within a matter of days. Successfully tackling the collapse of the Irish economy, which has seen thousands emigrate and has left many more out of work, will not be as straightforward.

This article first appeared in the Scotsman 27 February