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Con Houlihan: The State pillars are crumbling

Fraught is a word we sometimes use without being sure of its meaning: there was an occasion, however, when its meaning couldn't be in any possible doubt. It was March 9, 80 years ago: there was a mighty crowd assembled in Kildare Street, because the outgoing Government was about to hand over power to Fianna Fail.

Fianna Fail had lost the war in the fields but they won the war in the votes and they went on winning it for a long time to come. Indeed on that day, it was by no means certain that Cumann na nGaedhael (which would later become Fine Gael) would hand over power. There were rumours that the party would use the Army to prevent the takeover.

Folklore tells us that Eamon de Valera's son Vivian was armed as he went into Leinster House that day. We are told he carried a revolver but that is most unlikely, as a revolver would be obvious in his pocket. He probably had a banana or a round of black pudding for his lunch.

People of a romantic mind foresaw an invasion of the Dail by extremists, who would massacre the Fianna Fail deputies. And so Vivian would have been the last man standing. It is a role he would have appreciated. Nothing dramatic happened. Fianna Fail took over seamlessly.

They inherited an unstable State, a dithering economy, a staunch army, a railway system that was the envy of all Europe and the world's most unspoiled waterways. But they inherited empty coffers, a profound distrust by other nations and an economy that was based mostly on the sales of live cattle to England.

Fianna Fail, with a few exceptions, have dominated Irish politics since that March day long ago. What have they left behind? An economy in a terrible state; a debilitated railway system; ruined waterways; a poor health service. These aren't the only problems that Enda Kenny must face. Of course, he won't be on his own: he has an able Cabinet, a good Civil Service, a sound Army and a reliable Garda force. There are, however, problems not of his making and about which he can do little. Three pillars of State are crumbling. They are the Catholic Church, the Fianna Fail party and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).

The first is the most serious: the Irish Catholic Church has been the framework of which most of our lives are built. It is impossible to imagine an Ireland in which it is no longer powerful. And yet the pyramidal structure from the Vatican downwards is unlikely to survive until the middle of this generation. We can foresee a day in which the priests will be like freedom fighters, maintaining a faith in which many people no longer believe. This seems unthinkable, but it is all too likely. For hundreds of years, it abused its powers and the day of reckoning is nigh.

It seems unthinkable also that the GAA, also for long the framework of our sporting, social and cultural life, will fade away. It is very vulnerable to forces from the outside world: as rugby and soccer become more professional, many young men of 20 will go away. These are all problems with which no government can cope. They are there and they will make life increasingly hard for all of us.

There is another pillar of wisdom that might crumble: Fianna Fail came better out of the election than their own people feared. It is quite likely that a new party, fused from the more conservative elements of both the old parties, will emerge. But politics in the Republic has been changed forever. Will we see a radical party come out of the chaos? It is most unlikely, because the Irish people are the most conservative people east of India or east of anywhere.

What really happened in the election? Where did all of Fianna Fail's votes go? It is most unlikely that they went to Labour or to Fine Gael. A significant number may have gone to Sinn Fein. Where did Labour get their extra votes? They were always there but many of their party turned away in disgust after Labour had coalesced with Fianna Fail after a previous general election. Indeed, I knew many loyal Labour Party people who said they would never vote Labour again. Seemingly, they did and they came back in significant numbers.

How can you explain the collapse of the Green Party? It has been associated with the Government, especially when it voted for cuts in the medical card. It had no alternative then, because not to do so would bring down the Government and cause a general election, which the Green Party could not afford.

No party has suffered more hostile media. Cynicism is part of journalism but for a number of years it seems to be ingrained in the media's heart. One suspects a kind of cynicism that has no time for idealism or new ideas. But the Green Party will probably come back stronger than ever. They made the mistake of being innocent: it is a quality that is suspect in Irish life. They had good ideas, and if some of them seemed impracticable, time will bear them out. They will probably regain ground in the local elections and build on from there.

It is hoped that the new Government will remain in power long enough to give Kenny and his good men and women a chance. It isn't a time for great expectations. Kenny cannot inspire us to become patriots over night but it is a time for individuals to do their best and to remind us of Anatole France's famous dictum: "The silent heart of the people is the source of all great things."

Fogra: Congratulations to Jimmy Deenihan on achieving his well-earned post in the Cabinet. It couldn't happen to a better man