Election Special 2002: NOONAN: IT'S OVER NOW; FG Boss Quits after Party Loses Half of Its Dail seats.(News)

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Byline: ELECTION TEAM: LARISSA NOLAN, DECLAN POWER, ELAINE EDWARDS, DONNA CARTON, MAEVE QUIGLEY, DECLAN FAHY & JOHN KELLY

FINE Gael leader Michael Noonan quit last night after his party suffered its most humiliating defeat in the history of Irish elections.

Fine Gael's vote collapsed across the country, losing almost HALF its seats.

A devastated Mr Noonan said last night: "It was a tragedy to lose so many good colleagues.

"I take absolute responsibility. I had a very good staff, very good advisors and a very good director of elections. The responsibility is mine and mine alone.

"And I think I am taking the appropriate course of action tonight by indicating my intention to resign."

Among those to suffer at the electoral guillotine were former Justice Minister Nora Owen and deputy leader Alan Dukes.

Mrs Owen's vote collapsed to just over 4,000 votes in Dublin North while Dukes - tipped as a future leader of Fine Gael - lost his seat in Kildare South by a handful of votes as Fianna Fail scooped two out of three.

Senior officials conceded that the Fine Gael seat share might fall by as many as 24 - leaving it with just 30 seats in the new Dail.

As the results came in, backbenchers and even former leader and Taoiseach John Bruton rounded on Mr Noonan, saying he had serious questions to answer.

A surge of disquiet had already emerged before Mr Noonan made his decision, with many backbenchers publicly calling for the leader's resignation.

Sligo Leitrim TD John Perry said: "I think he has to do the honourable thing."

Mr Perry said that "very strong" questions now had to be asked about the party's defeat.

And Mr Bruton hung a question mark over Mr Noonan's leadership. Speaking in a radio interview, Mr Bruton said the crippling electoral defeat would not have happened if he had still been at the helm.

Asked if he believed the outcome would have been different if he had been leader, Mr Bruton said: "I believe Fine Gael would have done better in this election by a considerable margin."

And referring to the surprise leadership challenge against him two years ago, he said: "I think that the very fact of reversing a decision made only a month previously on the position of leader and deputy leader was in itself very deeply damaging to the party, because it displayed a lack of rigour, a lack of commitment to decisions already democratically taken.

But despite an earlier statement that the party faced a major challenge and questions to answer, he insisted the matter of Mr Noonan's leadership would be dealt with.

Mr Bruton said: "The Fine Gael party has a very good rule, which provides that after after any general election in which the party leader is not becoming Taoiseach that he must submit himself to be re-elected or not, as the case may be, in a secret ballot.

"So that matter will be dealt with anyway. There's no need to bring it up in discussions at this stage."

Looking exhausted as he spoke to reporters after Ms Owen's shock defeat at around 3am yesterday, Mr Bruton said the party faced a "major challenge" that required "deep thought".

The Fine Gael vote in some areas was slashed to a tiny share of its 1997 total and many front bench TDs were battling hard to hold onto their seats.

Former deputy leader Nora Owen was among the party's first casualties in the pilot electronic vote in Dublin North.

Mrs Owen was clearly devastated as the blow was delivered by the returning officer shortly after 2.30am yesterday.

She was comforted by constituency colleague Sean Ryan of Labour, who held on to the seat he gained in the by-election caused by former Fianna Fail minister Ray Burke's resignation.

Green Party leader Trevor Sargent, the first to be elected in the constituency on the sixth count, also offered sympathised with her as she broke down. …