Fine Gael's first preference votes, 2002 - 2011

Ever since the assumption of Fianna Fáil to political power in Ireland in 1932, the Fine Gael party has had to consign itself to second place. By the time of the 2002 general election, it had been in government on only six separate occasions (1948-51, 1954-57, 1973-77, 1981-82, 1982-87 and 1994-97). On each of those occasions, it was supported by other parties, most regularly the Labour Party. The prospect of Fine Gael securing a majority in a general election and governing by itself was one which could only have been regarded seriously if some catastrophe befell their major rivals, Fianna Fáil.

In the 2002 general election, Fine Gael's prospects declined to the extent that commentators, both from the media and from other parties, began to speculate on the party's future - or more rather, whether it had one. In a general election which saw the party face up against a popular Fianna Fáil administration in the midst of the booming Celtic Tiger years, there was no real hope that it could make any gains. They had shed 23 seats to return only 31 TDs. There were only 3 Fine Gael TDs within the Dublin constituencies. Party leader Michael Noonan, who had been elected to the position in 2001, immediately resigned. Fine Gael was thrown into chaos.

In the leadership election which followed, long-serving Mayo TD Enda Kenny became the head of the party. Although a TD since 1975, Kenny's previous experience only amounted to being the Tourism Minister in John Bruton's 1994-7 government. Few people considered him as having strong leadership potential. However, Fine Gael's fortunes did begin to improve under Kenny's leadership. In 2004 the party surpassed Fianna Fáil in the European Parliament elections, and regained a substantial number of seats in the local elections of the same year. By 2007, the party was in a position to model itself as a viable alternative government, albeit with the assistance of Labour. Although Fianna Fáil remained in power, Fine Gael regained 19 of its lost seats, which combined with a previous by-election victory brought the party's total up to 51.

The years between 2007 and 2011 saw the Irish economy suffer a huge decline - along with the popularity of the government. The situation by the end of 2010 was so dire that Fianna Fáil had slumped to all-time lows in opinion polls. Fine Gael, meanwhile, had risen to highs not seen since the 1980s. Once a general election was called in early 2011, a Fine Gael-led government was for the first time an absolute certainty. Nine years after the huge blow of the 2002 general election, Fine Gael had returned their best ever result with 76 TDs and 36% of the vote, with the once little-known TD from Mayo now Taoiseach.

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The effect of Enda Kenny on his party's fortunes can easily be seen with the change in the Fine Gael vote in Connacht between 2002 and 2007, an effect all the more remarkable by the lack of a similar impact in the Limerick/Munster area during Michael Noonan's leadership in 2002.

The party's improvements in Dublin in 2007 were of a mild nature, but with the electoral routing of Fianna Fáil in that county in 2011, there were many easy gains for Fine Gael to make, especially in southern Dublin.

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 It should not be inferred of course that Fine Gael has now simply replaced Fianna Fáil as the dominant party of Irish politics. As the 2011 election showed, Irish political culture is undergoing a huge shift. The next general election, whether it takes place in 2016 or earlier, may not repeat the results of 2011. Much of the increase in Fine Gael's support was attributable to dissatisfaction with Fianna Fáil for their actions in the preceding years. As Fine Gael and Labour continue to navigate the state through the economic turmoil, their own choices have met and will continue to meet opposition from a public which is enduring continued economic hardship. Fine Gael's newfound strong position may last for decades as Fianna Fáil's did, or it may recede and be replaced by something else in turn. It is too early to know.