Then and now: the launch of the Fianna Fail manifesto before the last election in May 2007

IS the once mighty Fianna Fáil party about to go the same way as the British Liberal Party, Canada's Progressive Conservatives and Italy's Christian Democracy party and be consigned to the political margins or, worse, total oblivion?

It's a question that even six months ago seemed unthinkable, but now is on the minds of many Fianna Fáil TDs.

With good reason. The general election is less than seven weeks away. The party was at 14% in the polls even before last week's calamitous events. There is enormous public hostility towards the government.

Fianna Fáil is utterly demoralised and divided to the point where it is everyone for themselves. Despite raising an estimated €1.2m in its super draw last year to put a dent into its high debt levels, the party doesn't have the financial muscle of Fine Gael. And its electoral strategy seems rooted in the days when the party was targeting 40%-plus of the vote.

When veteran TD Ned O'Keeffe said recently that Fianna Fáil could end up with just a dozen seats after the next general election, most commentators and party colleagues thought that Ned was being Ned and exaggerating just how bad the outcome could be.

But a close analysis of the opinion polls suggests that O'Keeffe had simply done his homework.

Highly-respected psephologist Odran Flynn – whose research on the inequality of representation in Dáil constituencies prompted a 2007 High Court challenge – believes the Cork East deputy could be close to the mark.

Flynn has applied the results of the recent Red C/Paddy Power poll, which showed Fianna Fáil at 14% nationally and 10% in Dublin, to each Dáil constituency, placing it alongside the data from the 2007 general election result. He also did the same for Sinn Féin, which was also at 14% in the poll. His findings raise very serious questions as to whether Fianna Fáil will even succeed in being the main opposition party after the general election on 11 March, with a very real possibility emerging of Sinn Féin filling that role.

If Fianna Fáil comes in at 14% in a general election, Flynn believes that there are only 11 constituencies where the party is reasonably certain of winning a seat. In contrast, a return of 14% for Sinn Féin – based on its performances, with 7% of the vote in 2007 – could see that party winning a minimum of 20 seats.

Why the differential in seat returns? Because it is running two (and even three) candidates in most constituencies, Fianna Fáil runs the risk of splitting its vote. Dun Laoghaire is the classic example of this. The party has two high-profile candidates in ministers Mary Hanafin and Barry Andrews, and with little between them, there is the possibility of a near 50-50 division of the Fianna Fáil vote with both ultimately falling short.

The same could happen in the likes of Dublin North-West, Dublin South-West, Limerick, Wicklow and both Meath constituencies.

In Meath West, for example, despite the resignation of Noel Dempsey, Fianna Fáil has opted to run a second candidate along with sitting TD Johnny Brady. While there should be a quota for Fianna Fáil there, the move runs the risk of splitting the party vote.

In contrast, Sinn Féin is running just one candidate in councillor Peadar Toibin and he could well end up edging out the Fianna Fáil candidates.

Such decisions have prompted criticism, inside and outside the party, that Fianna Fáil's candidate selection reflects its old 40%-plus poll standing rather than the new reality whereby anything over 20% would be gratefully seized upon.

However, party TDs say it is not as simple as its critics make out. "Particularly in rural areas, geography has to be taken into account. Some constituencies are so large that they require more than one candidate to cover the area. If you leave large swathes of rural areas unmarked, then you're leaving the door open for Sinn Féin. Certainly though, we need to ensure tight transfer between the Fianna Fáil candidates," one minister said last week.

Whether that will be possible with many candidates running far more independent campaigns is open to question. One senior deputy bluntly admitted to the Sunday Tribune last week that "my election poster will be different from the national template sent out by head office". Already there have been reports of TDs sending out leaflets without any mention of Fianna Fáil on them.

The party's election manifesto is hardly likely to be central to many local campaigns either. In his address to the parliamentary party on Tuesday, the Taoiseach insisted that, despite suggestions to the contrary, the manifesto was quite far advanced. Tony Killeen had been working on it since September with the input of policy committees which have been meeting regularly.

It is understood the manifesto will be very short and very specific and essentially amount to full implementation of the four-year plan published by the government late last year. In the circumstances, the party has little choice and it's a responsible approach to take but it's hardly likely to wow the voters.

Before Thursday's botched cabinet reshuffle, some TDs were taking solace from the high turnouts at party conventions, with 350 people turning up in Meath West; up to 500 in Galway West and 400 in Donegal South-West. And they held the hope that while the Fianna Fáil brand might be toxic, the work done on the ground by TDs over the years would count for something and help get the party to over 20%, even 25% on a good day. "I'm getting chewed out of it on the doorstep over Anglo, the universal social charge and so on but people are still saying, 'You're our man. We'll look after you,'" one senior figure said.

But by the weekend, that had changed and few TDs were arguing with the bleak scenario that the party could end up with between 12 and 15 seats and be usurped by Sinn Féin for the role of main opposition party.

At least after yesterday, the don't have to worry about how to avoid Cowen's traditional leaders' tour of the constituencies. There will be hope that the new leader can give the party a lift in the polls.

Even with the new leader, nobody in the party is in any doubt that it is now in a battle for survival. But has this realisation dawned too late? One senior figure told the Sunday Tribune that while he was hopeful a week ago that the situation could be salvaged, the brand was now so damaged he wasn't sure if a change of leadership would now make any difference.

"Head office is completely demoralised at the lack of direction it has been getting. I don't know when the last meeting of the national executive was. And the blame for that lies with the Taoiseach. Bertie wasn't great at that stuff but he made sure he had good people there. There are good people in the organisation now but they're fighting with one hand behind their back," another senior deputy said.

Eamon Gilmore's comment, on hearing the election date of 11 March, that there were 50 days to change Ireland was the kind of headline-grabbing line that is so typical of election campaigns. But one thing is certain: there are just 50 days to save Fianna Fáil – if it isn't already beyond redemption.