YOU CAN never write off Fianna Fáil in any election but even the most optimistic supporters of Brian Cowen's party must have grave reservations about the next general election.
Even if the economy happens across a dramatic recovery, a Fine Gael-Labour coalition is almost certain to make up the next government.
There have been some positive indicators and anything can happen in politics but it certainly looks as if the writing is on the wall for the Soldiers of Destiny.
Opinion polls over the last 18 months all point to a Fine Gael/Labour coalition replacing the current Fianna Fáil/Greens/Independents alliance.
The two parties will not engage in any 'Mullingar Accord' type electoral pact next time around as they will both fight head-to-head to win as many Dáil seats as possible. Fine Gael strategists harbour notions of an overall majority, while Labour believes it can be the biggest party in the Dáil.
While neither prospect looks realistic, they should have comfortably in excess of 90 seats between them and it is highly likely that they will have to sit down and iron out a programme for government. While finding compatibility in those discussions will present its own difficulties, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore will also face the potentially problematic task of selecting Cabinet ministers and junior ministers.
The leadership styles and performances of Kenny and Gilmore are already well documented and the subject of constant analysis. Kenny's style was the focus of much controversy with the recent failed heave against his leadership. Some Labour figures will quietly say that they find themselves lost in the shadow of Eamon Gilmore's personal popularity.
But what of the two party's front benches, do their shadow spokespeople cut the mustard? And how are they likely to perform in government?
The Sunday Tribune takes a look at 15 of Fine Gael and Labour's front bench personnel who face up to the 15 Cabinet ministers and assess how they have performed to date and how they might fare in government.
His predecessor Michael Creed was seen to be well on top of his brief but Doyle should slot well into his new role, given that he was Creed's deputy agriculture spokesman. Perhaps it is the fact that the 'Dublin Meeja' does not afford as much attention to agriculture compared to other government departments that the agriculture minister and his opposite number are not as prominent in the media. But Doyle is also likely to have a lower profile than some of his frontbench counterparts as a result. Given that his Wicklow constituency colleague Billy Timmins backed the wrong horse in the leadership heave, Doyle is now poised for advancement if Fine Gael get into government. Much will depend on how he performs in his new role.
Sherlock has been one of Labour's brightest stars since his election in 2007 and the young Cork East TD is sure to reach ministerial office in his political career. He has a sharp intellect and represents a new breed of Labour TD. He was willing to put his head above the parapet in publicly questioning Labour's links with the trade union movement. Although he is modest about his political future, Sherlock is already being talked about as a potential future leader of the Labour party.
O'Dowd was one of the surprises in Kenny's new line-up. Despite being on the wrong side, everyone expected him to survive the post-heave cull but not in as high profile a role as the education portfolio. He is a former teacher and he had performed well in the transport brief so he should get up to speed in education pretty quickly. His predecessor Brian Hayes must be ruing the day he got involved in the failed heave. No matter what people in Fine Gael think about him, there is no doubt that Hayes was well on top of his education brief. His green paper on education, a detailed plan for reform of the third level system and introduction of a 'graduate tax', and plans to reform the Leaving and Junior Certificate examinations will form a key part of Fine Gael's election manifesto. O'Dowd could do worse than continue on where Hayes left off in producing a number of pragmatic policy documents. He was constantly unearthing stories about government ineptitude when he was in the transport gig and he would need to replicate that in his new job.
Quinn has been there and done that. The former Labour party leader has held the Finance, Enterprise and Employment, Public Service and Labour portfolios at the cabinet table in a decorated political career. He could fit into a number of roles in the future. His name was also connected to the role of Ceann Comhairle after the last general election. While current Leas Ceann Comhairle Brendan Howlin will be in the shake-up for the Ceann Comhairle role after the next election, Quinn is also a possibility. The Labour party is also enjoying a massive swell of support in the capital so bookmaker Paddy Power's odds of 3/1 on Quinn becoming Dublin's first directly elected mayor might not be too wide off the mark. If not, a senior Cabinet post is a certainty.
Loyal to his leader, Phil Hogan is certain to be one of Taoiseach Enda Kenny's appointments to the Cabinet table. The former junior minister is a consummate media performer and he has shone brightly in the shadow role against John Gormley. His tenacity in unearthing some of the sordid financial detail about the workings of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) has been among his best achievements to date in his 'shadow' role. He was also the chief architect behind Fine Gael's 'New Politics' policy document that the party has labelled as the "most ambitious political reform package since the 1930s". In government he could be the driving force behind seismic political change that will include a referendum on scrapping the Seanad. His integral role in orchestrating Kenny's survival showed Hogan has more political nous than almost anyone else in his party.
Has a quiet unassuming manner but beneath that is a determined politician who brings a passionate approach to her portfolio. By no means a rabble rouser in the Dáil chamber, Tuffy does her homework and always knows the issues inside out when she stands to her feet. That said, she and her party took a surprising stance on the stag hunting bill. An outside bet for a junior ministerial position if and when Labour return to government.
The veteran Fine Gael figure has just taken over from Billy Timmins. He is an experienced, calm and authoritative politician. A former cabinet minister he brings a wealth of experience to the table. But it will take a few months to see if he still has the hunger and ambition for the job.
His passion for the arts made him one of the most adventurous and successful ministers for the Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in the state's history. His role in establishing TG4 and overseeing a period of unprecedented success in the Irish film industry were among his achievements. The Galway West TD also has an extremely broad interest in foreign affairs. He is constantly raising the plight of various oppressed or war-torn people in the Dáil. A few weeks back he led over 1,000 people through the streets of Dublin in a march to commemorate the nine Turkish citizens shot dead by the Israeli army on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla. Probably not in the front line of cabinet prospects but Higgins' could emerge as the Labour party candidate in the presidential election and could be ideally suited to such a campaign.
Fine Gael has separate spokesmen on the two areas of health and children. Since his arrival in the Dáil in 2007, Fine Gael's new deputy leader has made a huge impact and been an extremely vocal critic of the Minister for Health, Mary Harney, and the HSE. His first-hand knowledge of the health system makes him one of the strongest links on the Fine Gael front bench and his progressive Fair Care healthcare plan will be a key feature of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition's programme for government. Charlie Flanagan, who backed Richard Bruton in his failed leadership bid, can count himself lucky to survive Kenny's reshuffle.
O'Sullivan often finds herself in the shadow of Fine Gael's spokesman on health Dr James Reilly, because of his first-hand experience of working within the health system. But she does have a good human touch that was particularly evident in recent weeks, with her passionate reaction to the shocking news that a number of women were incorrectly told they had miscarried a pregnancy. Likely to lose out to Fine Gael when it comes to the health portfolio at the cabinet table, but she will still be in the shake-up for advancement.
The three-way debates in the Dáil between the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, and his opposition counterparts, Fine Gael's Charlie Flanagan and Labour's Pat Rabbitte, were always heated. They are three political bruisers who thrive on getting into dogfights during ministers' questions. Flanagan used to call for Ahern's head about once a month. The only person better in Fine Gael at getting up Ahern's nose has just been appointed to replace Flanagan – Alan Shatter. As Fine Gael's spokesperson on children, Shatter's record in highlighting the plight of the most vulnerable in society, like the late Daniel McAnaspie and Tracey Fay who died in HSE care, has seen his star rise in recent months. Having Shatter, a lawyer by trade, in the justice role is a good move by Fine Gael.
Like Flanagan, the former Labour leader is constantly at loggerheads with Ahern and he constantly flourishes as a political performer on the back of his spats with the justice minister. Nobody ever made 'Rabbitte for Taoiseach' posters at a Labour party conference and Eamon Gilmore, his successor as Labour leader, is enjoying 'Spring Tide'-like popularity. But nobody can doubt Rabbitte's political nous, shrewdness and overall suitability to be one of Labour's Cabinet ministers in the next government. He will be one of the first names on the Cabinet team sheet. Don't be surprised if the duty of going out to fight fire for the government in front of the media, a-la-Willie O'Dea in times gone by, falls to Rabbitte.
Shadowing the Minister for Defence was a tough station for Deenihan as it is one of the most low profile ministries. So Deenihan's return to the Tourism, Culture and Sport portfolio marks the Kerry football legend's return to his natural home. He is a shrewd political operator – as will be shown when he tops the polls in Kerry North/Limerick West in the next general election.
Has a low media profile but her work ethic cannot be doubted. Despite Ireland being officially out of recession, if the next government is a Fine Gael/Labour coalition, it is likely to inherit an economy that is far from fully recovered. Creative and innovative policies are going to be essential for our recovery and Upton's recent 'Extending the Welcome' policy document for the tourism industry certainly falls into this category. Her plan to reform the hotel industry and deal with the 'zombie hotels' problem is exactly the sort of initiative that will be welcomed when a programme for government is being hammered out.
Coveney is a serious and thoughtful politician, who knew his communications, energy and natural resources brief backwards and is generally pretty measured in his criticism, avoiding kneejerk and hysterical reactions. His 'New Era' policy document is a substantial piece of work but it hasn't really grabbed the imagination of the media or the general public. It's a sad reflection of politics and how it is covered, but perhaps Coveney needs to be more sound-bite oriented in his new incarnation. However, that is nit-picking – the Cork-South Central deputy is a substantial figure who should be in the reckoning for the next Cabinet, despite backing Richard Bruton during the leadership heave.
If these were 'player ratings' after a football match, Costello would have to fall into the category of 'Not on long enough to be rated' as he was only appointed to Labour's front bench on Thursday. The veteran Dublin Central TD replaces Tommy Broughan who lost the party whip a fortnight ago for going against the party in the vote on the stag hunting ban. Costello has a lot to do to step into Broughan's shoes. Out of all the opposition frontbench spokespeople, Broughan had proven himself to be among the most on top of his brief. When the Ryanair/Dublin airport Hangar 6 controversy broke earlier this year, he was probably the most informed TD in the Dáil in the intricacies of the debate from early on. When Ryanair were winning the PR debate with former enterprise minister Mary Coughlan, Broughan was well versed on all the facts from the off and went beyond playing politics. He is a principled politician and called the issue as he saw it, as he did with the stag hunting. Will return to the party fold sooner or later.
Varadkar has been one of the most high profile opposition deputies since his election in 2007. Obviously bright and able, he has belied his lack of experience and youth to more than hold his own in a very challenging portfolio. Can be somewhat impetuous – witness his remarks on Garret FitzGerald – but he is a serious talent and if he can learn to bite his tongue at times, he has definite future leadership potential. He is likely to be a senior minister in the next government, although his behaviour during the leadership heave showed that he still has a lot to learn. He appeared on RTE's Six-One News to publicly back Kenny on the Friday before the heave yet he was to the fore a few days later in backing Richard Bruton.
McManus has been less high profile than during her previous tenure as Health spokesman, but she is nobody's fool and is highly experienced. A junior minister in the Rainbow government, McManus should be in line for a ministerial position of some form in any new government.
Stanton was first elected to the Dáil in 1997 and he has returned to the party's front bench as he was at one time Fine Gael spokesperson on Social and Family Affairs. But his work as the party's assistant chief whip should not be underestimated. His work in formulating proposals for Dáil reform, which largely went under the radar, was extremely progressive and workable. If his proposals for changes to the day-to-day workings of the Dáil were adopted, it would make for a more efficient parliament. Stanton's biggest challenge is that shadowing the Minister for Defence is a tough station. It's probably the most low profile ministry and even with the recent cutbacks, the opportunities for an opposition spokesman are somewhat limited.
Brian O'Shea is one of the Dáil's gentlemen and while low key, he always has a knowledge of his brief and is well prepared and constructive in his approach. He boasts over 20 years in the Dáil, where the Waterford TD has been returned in every election since 1989. By no means a certainty to get a junior or senior ministry. But geography may work in his favour, a-la-Martin Cullen.
After his failed leadership bid, Richard Bruton has been appointed to the role of spokesman on Enterprise, Jobs and Economic Planning including public service reform. Served in this role as a minister and clearly has the skill set to do the job. The big question is whether he has the appetite and the desire after his failed heave?
Although he showed himself to be a political bruiser with his impassioned speech against the ban on stag hunting, Penrose is old school and courteous in his approach. But despite being low key and measured, he has a good knowledge of the issues and has been particularly strong on matters relating to SMEs and credit for businesses. Has also been an effective chair of the Oireachtas committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
Richard Bruton knew finance inside out but his biggest failing was the criticism that he is too much of a gentleman for the role. Enter Michael Noonan. The former Fine Gael leader has shown that he has an excellent financial brain over the last two years with his inspired contributions to key Dáil debates on issues such as Nama and the bank guarantee scheme. He will relish the challenge and he has already set out his stall, just days after he stepped into Bruton's role – there already seems to be a slight tweaking of Fine Gael's position on the banks. Could he be the next Minister for Finance?
Burton, meanwhile, has also performed well. She knows her stuff inside out. If there's a criticism, it's that Labour has gone for a more populist and less constructive approach than Fine Gael. Burton will certainly be in the next Cabinet in a senior role.
It is often said that Ring and party leader Enda Kenny have a fractious relationship. Whether this is the case or not, Kenny can never doubt Ring's contribution in saving Kenny's bacon during the leadership heave. He was one of the first out of the blocks in terms of defending Kenny to the last in a series of media interviews throughout the heady days before the crucial vote on Kenny's future. Kenny duly rewarded him with a promotion in his frontbench reshuffle. Used to facing up to Minister Eamon O'Cuiv when the two of them were in their respective Community, Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs roles, Ring will no doubt perform well in his new role. Certain to be at least a junior minister in the next government.
Shortall is unapologetically on the left of her party and is a tough no-nonsense and highly effective media performer. Of course in government the rhetoric would be replaced by the reality of operating within tight fiscal constraints, but Shortall is capable of doing a good job in any department.
Níl aon Gaeilge aige! The expression on his face when Irish language journalists posed questions about his lack of a 'cúpla focail' at the press conference to announce the new front bench was priceless. But he has promised to learn Irish. It was no surprise that the popular Roscommon TD was appointed to Kenny's new front bench, given his level of public support for the leader during the heave. It was a surprise that he got the 'Craggy' portfolio as he does not speak Irish. Then again, his predecessor in the role, Michael Ring, did not have Irish either.
He is measured, calm and steady. Unlike a lot of other TDs in the chamber, Wall, who has been in the Dáil since 1997, is not a bang-the-table-and-shout merchant but he carries out his work with quiet efficiency. Unlikely to get a state car when the next government is formed.
As well as looking at the 15 Cabinet ministers' opposite numbers on the Fine Gael and Labour benches, there are a number of other players who cannot be ruled out of contention for Cabinet places or junior ministries at this early stage.
Some of these figures are on the Labour and Fine Gael front benches where their opposite number on the government benches is a junior minister. For example, Labour's Kathleen Lynch is the party spokesperson on Disability Issues and Equality and her opposite number is Minister for Equality, Disability and Mental Health John Moloney.
Behind Phil Hogan, party whip Paul Kehoe was instrumental in ensuring his party leader's survival in the recent leadership challenge. Kehoe is certainly one of the party's most astute political brains. He has agreed to remain in the party whip role, where he is never afraid to let fly at the government, but he will be rewarded by Kenny with a place at the Cabinet when the jobs come to be doled out. Limerick TD Kieran O'Donnell emerged as one of the party's best financial brains over the last two years but his backing of Richard Bruton will have seriously dented his promotion chances. Others to watch are newly promoted Innovation and Research spokeswoman Deirdre Clune and spokeswoman on older people Catherine Byrne, as well as Wexford TD Michael D'Arcy, another good financial brain and the party's Seanad leader Frances Fitzgerald.
Ciaran Lynch, Labour's spokesperson on housing, is among the most able of the party's Oireachtas team. Party whip Emmet Stagg (left) is one of Labour's most experienced politicians. Kathleen Lynch has proven herself as a more than capable performer. Alex White is showing great potential in the Seanad. Leas Ceann Comhairle Brendan Howlin could be in the shake-up to replace Seamus Kirk in the Ceann Comhairle role.