Ireland's election result is no less groundbreaking for having been largely predictable. Fine Gael is likely to form a strong government with Labour, between them holding 113 seats out of 166 in the Dail. They will seek better terms than the crippling 5.8% interest rates that they have to pay on their European bailout loans. But essentially they will preside over a continuity of the austerity that had been begun under Fianna Fail in the years that saw its demise. But the real importance of the election is the collapse of DeValera's party, an event that with the liberal reforms that were symbolised by the 1990 election of Mary Robinson as President, the neutralisation of Northern Ireland as an issue and the collapse of Catholic church authority under a welter of child abuse scandals has finally brought to an end the stifling insularity that characterised Ireland from the 20s to the 70s.
Of course, some things haven't gone away. The economic collapse has brought back the spectre of emigration, though it lacks the permanence or distance of earlier years and there remains a strong and growing private sector thanks to the low corporation taxes so hated by Germany and France. Fianna Fail, with just 20 seats, has partly lost ground to a stronger Sinn Fein party which has obscured its past to secure 14 seats. But as importantly, the Irish Labour Party, despite a haltingly confused election campaign, is now Ireland's second party, with 37 seats and has done better than its previous best result in 1992. It is the predominant party in Dublin, and the opposition benches also have several hard left TDs who may form an informal alliance with Sinn Fein to challenge the next coalition with Fine Gael on around 75 seats, from the left.
That Fianna Fail has fallen so low doesn't, of course, mean that it will permanently be stuck in the doldrums. Its new leader, Micheal Martin has at least halted what could have been an even worse slide. The Canadian Conservatives showed that parties can recover from such a drubbing. But what it does mean is that the old assumptions are finally dead and buried. To some extent, the Celtic Tiger boom was the catalyst for much of that change already. But it was presided over by Fianna Fail, which had managed to adapt in many ways to those winds of change, though never convincingly to embrace them. So, the transition could never be complete while the party of Dev continued to dominate Irish politics.
Now that party will need to face up to a future that it had sidestepped while Bertie was in charge as the money flowed in. Ireland needs to show that it can be modern and efficient with more realistic and soundly based growth. Whatever happens, there is no doubt that the election of 2011 will come to be seen as just as seismic an event in Irish political history as the 1918 poll that saw the demise of the Irish national party in favour of a Sinn Fein that gave birth to the two parties that dominated independent Ireland's politics for 90 years.
This post also appears at Public Finance.