One unexpected casualty of the global economic crisis has been the political sureness of touch of the self-styled natural party of government in Ireland. Ever since Eamon DeValera found a way to overcome his principles to sit in the Dail, despite having to declare allegiance to the British crown, Fianna Fail has been the party where pragmatism and populism have been blended to perfection, to their enormous electoral advantage and the frustrated fury of its opponents.
Bertie Ahern, whose tenure as Taoiseach coincided with Tony Blair's as British Prime Minister, perfected the art. But his semi-forced resignation earlier this year has seen his party take leave of its senses. The bluff former finance minister Brian Cowen has been a disaster as Taoiseach, and his own finance minister Brian Lenihan surprisingly seems to lack his father's political antennae: a tough budget ten days ago - forced by a sharp downturn in public finances - saw them proposing to take away the medical cards of many pensioners aged over 70, forcing them to pay medical bills above €100 a month, and to levy a 1% tax on everyone, even those on the minimum wage (health care is not universally free in Ireland).
The prospect of thousands of irate pensioners descending on Dublin combined with the disbelief of their populist backbenchers and the acute embarrassment of their Green coalition allies to force an almost complete U-turn. But the result has been that Fianna Fail will never again be regarded as the political pacesetters in Ireland. It has reached a low of just 26% in a new poll (against 33% for Fine Gael and 15% for Labour). Irish politics will surely never be the same again. No wonder Bertie broke a leg this week.