Brian Cowen

This year promises to be a year unlike any other in the past three decades of Irish politics. The general election in March is likely to prove the most memorable since the landmark election of 1977 and may even prove to be the most significant, in terms of shifting the political landscape, since the arrival of Fianna Fáil in the late 1920s.

But while the macro picture will focus on the usurping of Fianna Fáil after its 80-year stint as top dogs, politics is ultimately about individuals. And, as they raised their glasses last Friday night to ring in the New Year, politicians the length and breadth of the country must have felt a flutter of nerves in their stomach as they contemplated what lies ahead. The next few months will literally make or break the careers of many of the best-known political faces in the country. The Sunday Tribune identifies the 11 with most to win or lose in 2011.

1. Brian Cowen

On the plus side for Brian Cowen, 2011 can hardly be any worse than 2010. Or can it? Cowen's career in frontline politics will end this year – that much is pretty certain. But the manner of his exit is still to be determined. Cowen showed plenty of fight in December and he will need to maintain that form in the coming months. If he does, he could well succeed in shoring up the Fianna Fáil base. That could be the difference between the party winning close to 50 seats or below 30 – which will be crucial in terms of Fianna Fáil's long-term prospects and for Cowen's legacy. The suspicion lingers that history will be kinder to his tenure as Taoiseach (if not his time as Minister for Finance) but he needs to ensure his party survives the election in a state that will allow it to fight another day.

2. Gerry Adams

A year ago, Adams looked a beaten docket while Sinn Féin seemed to have hit a ceiling of support in the south, but 2011 seems to hold a lot of promise for the party and its president. Adams' decision to contest the general election was a calculated gamble but its timing has been perfect and it could give him a new lease of political life. Sinn Féin has got a huge lift from its Donegal South-West by-election victory, the party seems to have a sharper focus, and come April Adams could be leading a party with 10 or more seats in the Dáil. But Sinn Féin strategists won't be getting too carried away by the recent poll figures. The party has traditionally failed to deliver the seats to match its poll ratings and Adams will have to perform a whole lot better in the upcoming campaign than in 2007 when he seemed totally out of touch will life south of the border. It will be a huge test for Adams but if he comes through it, Sinn Féin could finally become a political force to be reckoned with in the Dáil.

3. John Gormley

For John Gormley and his Green Party, 2011 is about one thing: survival. They are probably right when they say that the Green movement will survive any election result, as it did in other countries where it endured electoral wipeouts. But, given that it has had a Dáil presence since 1989, it would be an enormous setback if the party were to fail to hold on to at least a seat or two. It would also be unfair. The Greens were the one party to consistently warn about the property bubble and in government they haven't shied away from taking tough decisions. But politics is seldom fair and voters seem determined to take it out on them come polling day. While none of the Green seats look safe, it's hard to see Gormley surviving in Dublin South-East, a constituency where many big names have fallen in the past.

4. Enda Kenny

'Taoiseach Enda Kenny' – like the sound of it? Well get used to it. Because from April onwards, you're going to be hearing it a lot. It's been a highly unlikely journey to this point. Kenny didn't set the world on fire in the 27-year period between becoming a TD in 1975 and taking over the Fine Gael leadership. But he did rescue his party from its 2002 abyss and showed tenacity and cunning to see off a seemingly unstoppable challenge to his leadership last June. The doubts about him still remain among large sections of the electorate but it's impossible to envisage any other scenario other than Kenny becoming Taoiseach after the March general election. It won't be all plain sailing for the Mayoman, however. He has to ensure Fine Gael delivers a minimum of 60 seats (and ideally a good few more) in the election to ensure his party retains the upper hand in government. He will also have to stand up to the battering Fianna Fáil will inevitably heap upon him in the election campaign. If he can do both those things, Kenny may end up surprising a few people as Taoiseach.

5. Eamon Gilmore

The golden boy of politics over the last three years, but there were just the tiniest of signs throughout December that some of the lustre is fading a little. Has Labour peaked too soon or is it simply a blip on its upward trajectory? Whichever it is, Labour is going to have a very good election. That is clear. The worry for Gilmore is that he has performed so well that he has created huge expectations. If the party was to win 34 or 35 seats, it would be its best-ever performance but it might be regarded in some quarters as a disappointment given the party's ambitions to lead the next government. But even in such circumstances, Labour will be in government – after a 14-year gap – with significant cabinet representation. Then will come the big test for Gilmore. He has shown an uncanny skill at tapping into the public mood and an aptitude for the politics of opposition. It will be a much bigger challenge being in government and 2011 will begin to show if he can offer a genuine alternative.

6. Mairead McGuinness

We picked McGuinness, although it could be any of the candidates – Michael D Higgins, Fergus Finlay, Brian Crowley, David Norris, etc, etc – speculated upon as successors to President Mary McAleese, whose term ends in the autumn. The word from Fine Gael is that McGuinness will not contest the general election after her harrowing experience in Louth in 2007, so that seems to leave the way clear for the MEP to contest the presidency for her party. That assumes, of course, that there will be a contest. Will Fine Gael and Labour, by then presumably in coalition together, and Fianna Fail – in its rebuilding phase – want an election? Or might it be in the main parties' interest to come up with an agreed candidate?

7. Micheál Martin

The Fianna Fáil leader-in-waiting? It certainly looks that way. His main rival, Brian Lenihan, has been damaged (though perhaps only temporarily) by the way the EU/IMF intervention was handled. And Martin's strong media performances have clearly marked him out as the man to rebuild Fianna Fáil after the inevitable general election hammering. But first he has a little local business to attend to. Martin's seat, in Cork South-Central, is far from rock-solid and it seems at least possible that either he or his running mate Michael McGrath will lose out. But assuming he can come through the election, then the leadership (finally) seems his for the taking.

8. Brian Lenihan

Despite the recent flak, Lenihan has generally performed well in an impossible job over the past couple of years, particularly when one considers the news he received about his health this time last year. But the general election campaign will present a huge challenge for him. As finance minister, he will have a central role, and his battles with Michael Noonan could be a key influence on whether Fianna Fáil can avoid a total wipeout. While Martin looks the clear favourite to succeed Cowen, a strong performance by Lenihan could change things significantly.

9. Michael Noonan

Who would have thought back in May 2002, when he presided over Fine Gael's electoral humiliation, that Noonan would ever again be a central figure in Irish politics? But he has certainly succeeded in doing so. Talk of him emerging, à la John A Costello, as a compromise Taoiseach after the election seems fanciful, but he certainly looks the most likely candidate to succeed Brian Lenihan at the Department of Finance. The long general election campaign will test his current undoubted popularity with the public and there are those in Fianna Fáil who believe he can be 'got at'. However, if he keeps going as he did in December, he shouldn't have too many problems.

10. Dara Calleary

As with Mairead McGuinness, Calleary is simply representative of a wider group of people for whom 2011 will be critically important. In Calleary's case, the group is the next generation of leaders in Fianna Fáil and it includes people such as Timmy Dooley in Clare, Michael McGrath in Cork South-Central, Billy Kelleher in Cork North-Central, Niall Collins in Limerick County, and Thomas Byrne in Meath East. They will be the people to take over from Cowen, Dempsey and Ahern and there's no shortage of talent there. But first they have to make sure they get re-elected and with Fianna Fáil at just 17% in the polls, that is far from guaranteed for many of them.

11. Mary Lou McDonald

A couple of months ago, McDonald seemed a no-hoper in Dublin Central but if Sinn Féin is close to being as strong as the current polls suggest, then she must have a chance of taking a seat in Dublin Central. She has lost her last two electoral contests and, with that, her position as the anointed one to succeed Gerry Adams. The party miscalculated hugely after her success in the 2004 Euro elections by running her in Dublin Central – with an eye to going head-to-head with Bertie Ahern – rather than Dublin Mid-West, where she would have taken a seat. And then she failed to hold her Euro seat in 2009. However, Dublin Central looks a more open contest this time around, with no guarantee of one FF seat, never mind the usual two. If she was to get elected, McDonald could be expected to quickly rise back up the Sinn Féin pecking order. Her fate is largely out of her own hands. If Sinn Féin is very strong she'll be elected. If it fails to live up to current expectations, she won't.