THE scattering of TDs in the Dáil chamber erupted in laughter last Thursday morning when Labour TD Michael D Higgins taunted, "When the Taoiseach hears the first cuckoo he will call the general election."
Whatever about the cuckoo signalling the date for the spring election, the cock is certain to crow enough times to bring down the curtain on a lot of Fianna Fáil TDs' careers if the party remains at just 14% in opinion polls.
Fianna Fáil TDs and ministers who share constituencies are now pitted against each other in a series of 'Fianna Fáil Face-Offs' where there is likely to be only enough votes to elect one of them.
The situation is so dire for the party that these are not simply 'either/or' scenarios – it is conceivable that neither contestant in some of the face-offs will retain their seat.
Just weeks before the cuckoo crows, the Sunday Tribune looks at the polling day fight card and assesses the various bouts.
Michael Ahern v Ned O'Keeffe
Ahern and O'Keeffe are veteran vote winners who both garnered over 10,000 first-preference votes each in 2007. But that was four years ago, when Fianna Fáil won almost 38% share of the vote. That vote dropped sharply in the last local elections and it now looks like Fianna Fáil only has one quota. O'Keeffe, who is politically shrewd, knows this, and he publicly called for Brian Cowen's head eight days ago. That should play well with constituents. There is already much antipathy between the pair so this sets up an epic battle in the weeks ahead. It is impossible to see the two survive on current poll results, so O'Keeffe may have the better chance.
Billy Kelleher v Noel O'Flynn
This is a battle between a rebel TD and a junior minister who is seen as an up-and-coming Fianna Fáil star with ministerial ambitions. In fact both are in trouble as the last local elections show the party with less than one quota of support. Party maverick O'Flynn is a constituency street fighter and he may shade this battle.
Cork South Central
Micheál Martin v Michael McGrath
Michael McGrath is one of the most able members of the 'ógra Generation' who won seats in 2007. He has a clear grasp of the financial issues at the root of the economic crisis and is viewed as a young TD with a great long-term future. But his short-term future is not good. His problem is that he shares a constituency with one of the cabinet ministers who is in the shake-up to become leader. Some constituency polls have shown Martin in danger too. It is difficult to see Fianna Fáil hold two seats here so, despite his ability, McGrath could lose out.
Cyprian Brady v Mary Fitzpatrick
As Bertie Ahern is gone and the party only garnered 23% of the vote in the last locals in this constituency, at best there is only one Fianna Fáil seat here. Sitting TD Cyprian Brady only garnered 939 first preference votes here in 2007 yet he amazingly won a seat on the back of transfers from Ahern. The infamous Ahern electoral machine in Drumcondra has collapsed and this was evident in the way it failed to elect Maurice Ahern in the Dublin Central by-election in 2009. This signals trouble for Brady and as councillor Mary Fitzpatrick is seen to have been 'shafted' by the Ahern machine in the past she may be the winner here.
Michael Kennedy v Darragh O'Brien
With just 14% in the last local elections, support for Fianna Fáil has fallen greatly from the 42% share in the constituency that returned Kennedy and O'Brien in 2007. Current national opinion polls put Fianna Fáil also at just 14% so this means that one of the two sitting TDS will lose his seat. Cowen loyalist Darragh O'Brien is said to be one of the few Fianna Fáil TDs in Dublin (where the party is expected to take the biggest drubbing) to be showing well in internal Fianna Fáil party polls so he may shade this battle.
Noel Ahern v Pat Carey
Neither is safe. It is understood that Ahern ? who has yet to decide to run ? is ahead in some constituency polls that Fine Gael has conducted. But all news of various internal party polling has to be taken with a severe health warning. As a cabinet minister and former government chief whip, Carey enjoys the higher profile. The 2009 local election meltdown to 16% from 50% in 2007 is worrying for both TDs.
Conor Lenihan v Charlie O'Connor
There is a clear danger here that both Lenihan and O'Connor will lose their seats. Back in 1992, Labour won two seats and Democratic Left held a third so the 'Gilmore Gale' should return Pat Rabbitte and running mate Eamon Maloney if Labour does as well in Dublin as is widely expected. Fine Gael's Brian Hayes is safe and Sinn Féin's Seán Crowe should win a seat. That leaves just one Fianna Fáil seat. Lenihan has the higher national profile but O'Connor is 'Mr Tallaght' and a dogged constituency worker. So it really is a toss of a coin as to who will survive.
Mary Hanafin v Barry Andrews
This is going to be the mother of all battles. It is conceivable that neither the cabinet minister nor the junior minister will hold their seat. Both have refused to move their constituency base into Dublin South where they would have a better chance of consolidating the two seats. Support for Fianna Fáil collapsed in Dun Laoghaire to 13% in the 2009 local elections, with only one councillor elected. Using those results as a gauge it is impossible to see both Hanafin and Andrews elected.
Eamon Ó Cuív v Frank Fahey
Ó Cuív is seen as Fianna Fáil's leading figure on the western seaboard and he is one of the party's few 'bankers' to hold his seat. Fahey will have a bigger struggle to hold on. He is a good battler but if Fianna Fáil is on 14% in the national polls it will take some battle for both Ó Cuív and Fahey to be returned.
Sean Power v Sean Ó Fearghail
As a public critic of Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Seán Power certainly has the higher national profile. Last October, he garnered much media attention when he questioned if Cowen was the right person to lead Fianna Fáil into the next election. While Ó Fearghail has a lower profile, there is a view within Fianna Fáil that he has a better chance of holding the seat. Either way one of the two will not hold on.
Willie O'Dea v Peter Power
Holding the distinction of becoming the first ever cabinet minister to be tweeted out of office almost a year ago may actually work in Willie O'Dea's favour as he has been able to take up a position where he is removed from the cabinet on whose watch the EU/IMF came in. The best vote-getter in Irish politics will get a lot less than the 19,082 he got last time around but he will hold on. As the constituency drops from five to four seats, junior minister Peter Power faces a huge battle to keep his seat if current polls are replicated.
Niall Collins v John Cregan
Collins is one of the 2007 'Ógra Generation' dubbed the future of Fianna Fáil. That is, if they can hold their seats and if Fianna Fáil has a future. Cregan has been one of Cowen's closest allies and as deputy government chief whip he is held in high regard in the party. A portion of the old Limerick West constituency has been moved into the new Kerry North/Limerick West constituency. This affects Cregan as it takes away some of his support base. An analysis of last year's Limerick County Council election results suggests Fianna Fáil will lose a seat so there will be a major battle between Cregan and Collins for one of the three seats here.
Mattie McGrath v Martin Mansergh
The battle between rebel TD Mattie McGrath and junior minister Martin Mansergh could be dubbed chalk versus cheese – Oxford University on one side and Kildalton Agricultural College in Kilkenny on the other. (In case you are wondering, it wasn't Mattie that did his doctorate in 18th century pre-revolutionary French history at Oxford.) The results of last year's local elections show Fianna Fáil's share of the vote fell by almost 20% leaving it with just one quota. If there is only one Fianna Fáil seat, it will be fascinating to see if the rebel clientelist TD, who no longer holds the party whip, or the junior minister and Cowen loyalist can hold on.
Dick Roche v Pat Fitzgerald
Pat Fitzgerald is a county councillor in Wicklow who could well un-seat junior minister Dick Roche from the Dáil. Fitzgerald's geographic location, where he "has Arklow to himself", coupled with a local drive to give Arklow a TD, could well trouble Roche who will compete in the crowded northern end of the constituency against candidates such as independent Fianna Fáil TD Joe Behan, Fine Gael's Simon Harris, Sinn Féin's John Brady, Labour's Tom Fortune and Anne Ferris. Roche's defence of the government over issues such as the EU/IMF bailout may play well internally in Fianna Fáil but externally, it could be detrimental.