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Leading article: The bitter end of an era

The voters of the Republic of Ireland have just demonstrated that they have had enough of their government and want rid of it. This week they had three types of contest - one for Europe, another for local councils and a couple of Dail by-elections. In each, the once-mighty Fianna Fail party, which has dominated Irish politics for more than half a century, was not only rejected but humiliated.

This outcome looks not like some temporary setback but the beginning of a new era in Irish politics. This is partly because Fianna Fail's plunge was so dramatic and partly because no improvement in the dire economic situation is forecast for many years. The Irish public believes, rightly, that the country is among those hardest hit by the international recession, and for this it particularly blames the government. This is partly because Fianna Fail-led administrations were economically reckless during the boom years, and partly because the government seemed to go into shock when the crash came.

When it regained some composure, which took months, it had to convey the message that things were dire, and the future is bleak. It has already put taxes up and has been obliged to make it clear that more taxes and many cuts lie ahead. An entire nation has thus had to abandon many of its hopes and aspirations for improvement. "Palpable anger" was reported from the doorsteps.

It has not helped that prime minister Brian Cowen's default facial expression is one of disconsolate brooding. He can often seem even more morose than Gordon Brown. In the campaign he inspired neither his own party workers nor the electorate at large.

His party is now surveying the post-election wreckage, facing opposition parties which achieved major boosts and which look capable of forming an alternative coalition.

Fianna Fail knows that an election any time soon would lead to a crushing defeat. But it also knows that it is in very deep trouble, and that Mr Cowen does not seem capable of staging a political recovery. It will therefore come as a surprise if, in a year's time, he is still prime minister.