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Front bench line-up exposes flawed FF electoral strategy

THEY used to say that a picture was worth a thousand words. The picture of Micheal Martin and his 'frontbench' which appeared in this newspaper on Tuesday, spread across pages 16 and 17, was worth 10 times that.

It conveyed half a dozen different messages, addressed to different recipients. Mostly they were aimed at the general body of voters, or Fianna Fail loyalists, or both. But some were more specific, and their meanings were unmistakable.

If you care to dig it up and scrutinise it, you will see at the end of the front row the super-rebel John McGuinness. Here, the message is obviously aimed at Brian Cowen. McGuinness quarrelled with Cowen and with Mary Coughlan; Cowen demoted him. While he brooded on the backbenches, he wrote a book containing many sensible ideas for reform of the bureaucracy and advocating the establishment of a "new Fianna Fail". Now, as Martin's spokesman on small business, he has got his wish, at least in part.

Of course, any credible dust-off of the party's personalities and policies would have had to include him. But who is the demure little person two places away from him?

Why, it's Mary Fitzpatrick and here is another message, this time for Bertie Ahern.

At one time, she was among the most prominent victims of the activities of the Drumcondra Mafia in the Dublin Central constituency. Other victims sank without trace. She fought back. In the last local elections, she smashed the Ahern dynasty.

She hasn't heard the last of Bertie. In this general election -- in which the party has adopted a daft two-candidate strategy -- he has proclaimed his allegiance to his old friend Cyprian Brady. The smart money says Brady will come in well behind Fitzpatrick. But there never was any question of Fianna Fail winning two seats in Dublin Central. The question is whether she can hold even one in an election which is likely to be a bloodbath in that constituency.

Peeping over her shoulder and that of Averil Power you can glimpse Sean Fleming and Willie O'Dea. Fleming somewhat resembles McGuinness, though he has been nowhere near as rebellious -- he could hardly be too rebellious when he shared a constituency, Laois-Offaly, with Cowen.

He is, quite simply, a sound man, highly suitable to take on the portfolio of public service reform. But as in so many other places, the breakdown of party discipline has landed the leadership with an untenable electoral strategy.

At the height of Cowen's glory, Fianna Fail held three Dail seats in Laois-Offaly and aimed for four. Now the party is running three candidates in the hope of retaining two. Even if Fianna Fail achieves that, there is no guarantee that Fleming will be one of the two.

The party is also seeking two seats in Limerick City, and that explains Willie O'Dea's presence on the team. This raises another question of great interest to all parties. Have we seen the last of the massive vote-winners who could sweep in other candidates on their coat-tails?

Probably not yet, but O'Dea departs from the pattern in more ways than one. He has customarily polled massive first-preference votes, but his transfers go all over the place. A vote for Willie is not necessarily the most valuable vote for Fianna Fail. He will surely hold his seat, but the same cannot be said for his running mate Peter Power.

In this picture, Power can be seen laughing heartily, like someone who has just heard a hilarious joke. Not so the expressionless young man at the far end of the row from McGuinness.

The lack of expression is deceptive. This is senator Marc MacSharry, an excellent speaker with strong opinions and indubitably a coming man who has earned his place on Martin's team.

He is the son of Ray MacSharry, 'Mac the Knife', who in the dying days of the Cowen premiership emerged as Fianna Fail's leading (some might say their only) elder statesman.

In the late 1980s, Ray MacSharry gained lasting and well-deserved fame for the ruthless spending cuts that rectified the public finances and laid some of the groundwork -- though this was not predictable at the time -- for the Celtic Tiger boom. That is an enviable pedigree, and surely of some electoral advantage.

But like so many other members of the Martin 'frontbench', he faces an uncertain electoral future. One of the most striking features of his constituency, Sligo-North Leitrim, is the multiplicity of candidates. Add to that Fianna Fail's history of transfer repellence, and the possibility exists that Fianna Fail, who won two seats out of three in 2007, could fail to take a single seat this time.

One way or the other, MacSharry should be around when the time comes for his party to re-enter government. That could happen sooner than expected if Fine Gael continue to shoot themselves in both feet.

But a handful of talented people does not make an alternative cabinet, least of all when the party's opinion poll ratings stand at less than half of what not long ago was considered rock-bottom -- and more than half of the team could fail to find a place in the incoming Dail.

In the end, almost everything depends on the man who stands in the centre of the picture, beside his newly appointed deputy Mary Hanafin, who, surprisingly, does not look particularly pleased.

As always, he oozes confidence and earnestness. He knows that he has got off to a good start and that the media have reacted favourably.

But in order to win votes and seats, he will have to overcome, or at least mitigate, enormous public hostility. The idea of Fianna Fail dedication to reform and propriety borders on the laughable. And he does not have a vital advantage that most of his predecessors took for granted, party loyalty. Soon we will find out how tough he is.

Irish Independent