How now, Brian Cowen: the Taoiseach puts on a brave face after speaking to the media in Tullamore yesterday

FIANNA Fáil has crashed to its worst result in its 83-year history with the party set to lose over 50 seats across local councils nationwide, in danger of losing two of its four European seats and heavily defeated in the two Dublin by-elections.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s leadership of Fianna Fáil is certain to come under scrutiny in the coming days with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny announcing last night that the party will move a motion of no-confidence in the government in the Dáil this week.

Fine Gael has overtaken Fianna Fáil to become the biggest party in the state for the first time, enjoying its best election result since the general election of November 1982. The party is expected to win around 34% support in the locals, 10 points ahead of Fianna Fáil and up seven points on its 2004 performance.

Aside from George Lee’s thumping victory in Dublin South, Fine Gael could also make gains in the Euro elections when the results are announced tonight.

Labour too was poised to make major gains in the local elections with a first-preference vote level not achieved since the Spring Tide of 1992.

The party’s final tally in the locals is likely to be around 17%, up six points from five years ago and the party is set to gain up to 30 seats.

If this combined performance was replicated in a general election, Fine Gael and Labour would win a large Dáil majority.

There was some disappointment for Labour in failing to win either of the two by-elections in its Dublin stronghold.

However, there is likely to be consolation in the Euro elections with the party set to add a seat in the East constituency through Nessa Childers.

The elections were a disaster for the Greens, with the party last night on course to lose half its city and council seats and failing to register in the by-elections or the Euro constituencies. The Greens could end up with just five or six councillors. Dún Laoghaire TD Ciarán Cuffe said the Green performance would inevitably “open up questions” about whether or not the party should be in government.

However, he added that he believed the party would remain in government as long as it was making strong progress on green issues.

Green minister Eamon Ryan said that while the leadership would “listen to members and talk to them”, the Greens were “a very strong and stable party”.

There was no repeat of Sinn Féin’s surge of 2004 with all the indications suggesting the party would do well to hold its 54 council seats. But there was better news for the party’s prospects of holding its European seat in Dublin with the RTé exit poll last night showing Mary Lou McDonald as the front runner to take the third seat. Toireasa Ferris also has an outside chance of a seat in the South constituency.

If McDonald comes through, it would be at the expense of Fianna Fáil’s Eoin Ryan, a result that would increase the pressure on Brian Cowen, particularly given that the party is also in a major battle to hold Liam Aylward’s seat in the East. A loss of a seat in either Euro constituency would be hugely serious for Fianna Fáil.

The results for the European elections will not be announced until after 9pm tonight when polling stations across Europe have closed. In the local elections, Fianna Fáil was decimated in Dublin and struggled badly in all urban areas and in the Dublin commuter belt where it cleaned up in the 2007 general election. Speaking at a press conference in Tullamore yesterday the Taoiseach acknowledged the election was a “disappointing result”, but reaffirmed his belief that he could continue to lead the country.

“It’s fair to say we’ve had a disappointing result. It’s been a poor result by our standards. I think we all knew going into this campaign it was going to be a tough campaign, given where we are in the economy and the very tough decisions the government has had to take.”

Last night’s exit poll for the Euro elections showed Libertas leader Declan Ganley at 10% and in with an outside chance of a seat in the North-west constituency.

A Ganley victory would be a massive boost for anti-Lisbon campaigners ahead of the autumn referendum. But the figures suggest that independent MEP Marian Harkin, who is at 13% and who may prove more transfer friendly, should hold on.

However, the big winner yesterday was Fine Gael. Commenting on the results, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said: “This is an historic day in Irish politics. It is the day that Fianna Fáil’s dominance has ended. Fine Gael won this election, voters have responded to Fine Gael’s call for a new start. This government has been rejected by nearly three-quarters of the electorate. That’s why we must demand a change. That’s why next Tuesday I will move a motion of no confidence in the government in the Dáil. People voted no confidence in the government and I believe the Dáil should do the same.”

However, justice minister Dermot Ahern and social affairs minister Mary Hanafin rejected any suggestion that the result diminished the government’s mandate to govern.

They insisted the government would not be swayed from taking the difficult decisions in the national interest to help the economy recover.

Fianna Fáil backbencher Noel O’Flynn said yesterday that the party needed to reflect on the results and “change our policies”.

He said that some of the government policies “offended and affected the most vulnerable in society”. However, he stopped short of any criticism of the Taoiseach.