Contest to prove a test of cunning for 'Silver Fox'
KNOWN as the Silver Fox, Frank Flannery will need all his wily skills to emerge unscathed from today's Fine Gael presidential election contest.
The result will either be a superb triumph for the Fine Gael director of organisation's instincts, or confirmation he's lost his midas touch.
The outcome will also give an insight into who controls the party: the strategists or the politicians.
Despite the best efforts of Taoiseach Enda Kenny's adviser to distance himself from Pat Cox's entry into the party and presidential bid, everybody else in the party links Mr Flannery directly to the parachuting in of the former Fianna Fail and PD member.
"If Cox doesn't win, there's major egg on the face of Frank Flannery. He wouldn't be where he is today without the encouragement of Flannery. Flannery has his hands, feet, entire body all over this," a junior minister said.
Credited with drawing up the blueprint for the party's revival following the 2002 general election meltdown, Mr Flannery is an organisation guru in a party that is now in government.
Under Mr Kenny, his fortunes have ebbed and flowed -- always in opposite direction to Mr Kenny's other strategic confidante, Phil Hogan.
After the 2007 general election, Mr Hogan was demoted and Mr Flannery promoted.
However, a gaffe about sharing government with Sinn Fein in the 2009 local and European elections saw this trend reversed.
Mr Flannery took the fall and Mr Hogan was back in favour. Crucially, Mr Flannery was away in Mr Kenny's darkest hour last year, when Richard Bruton's heave almost brought about the Fine Gael leader's demise -- and Mr Hogan proved the kingmaker. After that, the dynamic changed and Mr Flannery's status hasn't been the same.
"He's in limbo. It was never the same after last summer. He lost considerable ground on that occasion. And now he's not at the centre of things in Government Buildings," another minister said.
Curiously, Mr Hogan was involved in an apparent endorsement of Mr Cox when he posed for photos with Mr Flannery's candidate this week.
The move was viewed as a wider effort to block Gay Mitchell and ensure either Mairead McGuinness or Mr Cox became the candidate.
"To have the two of them on the one side is rather strange," a confused senator said.
Mr Kenny is keeping clear of any accusations of bias, merely encouraging party members to vote for the best candidate.
While interpreted in some quarters as a nod towards Mr Cox, it's not blatant enough to be regarded as interference.
"Frank is not doing Enda Kenny's bidding here at all," a party insider said.
Today is the chance for Mr Flannery to prove he's still the master.
Managing to bring in a candidate of calibre from outside the party -- indeed, with origins in Fianna Fail -- and negotiate his way through an extremely tricky contest against substantial opposition would be quite the coup.
And a minister who prided himself on calling the outcome of the heave and several internal elections was wary of predicting the winner this time out.
"I still think it will be between Mairead and Gay.
"If Pat Cox wins it, I'll be out of touch with the party. You're dealing now with a different breed of people in the new TDs. They wouldn't be looking at loyalty.
"If Cox wins it, then the elected representatives will have lost control of the party," the minister said.