The row over Brexit and the subsequent confusion over the legal status of the agreement made between the British government and EU negotiators on 8 December, has overshadowed significant movement in the political dynamic involving the main political parties.
After emerging somewhat battered and bruised from his ultimately futile defence of former Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, the Fine Gael leader recovered with an unexpected boost in an opinion poll published during the tense heat of the Brexit discussions.
The Ipsos/MRBI poll for the Irish Times, published on the eve of the Brexit breakthrough, gave Leo Varadkar’s party a stunning 11 point lead (36% + 5) over Fianna Fáil (25% – 4) and a ten-point advantage over Micheál Martin in the personal satisfaction ratings.
The crisis over Fitzgerald’s failure to act on a planned Garda legal strategy to attack the integrity of Maurice McCabe during the O’Higgins inquiry in 2015 came close to forcing an unwanted general election before Christmas. After that threat was averted, much to the relief of most politicians and media organisations, pundits widely assumed that the political crisis had almost certainly brought forward the prospect of an election early in the new year.
The opinion poll put paid to that particular prediction and made it more likely that Fianna Fáil will be reluctant to breach the confidence and supply agreement with the Government in advance of the third budget it envisaged. The referendum on abortion due to take place before the summer is another factor that will inhibit politicians of both parties from bringing matters to a cliff edge in the medium term.
Martin and his more abrasive colleagues, who were openly baiting Varadkar to go for broke over the Fitzgerald debacle, are now the ones licking their wounds and along with others are forced to suck up the indignity of a Blueshirt leader taking the battle to Albion over Brexit.
As always the poll results, impressive as they are and showing the largest lead for Fine Gael over Fianna Fáil since 2015, are only useful until the next one, and also fail to take account of future challenges, expected and otherwise, facing this historically unstable political arrangement.
The most significant known change is the imminent transfer of power within Sinn Féin from Gerry Adams to Mary Lou McDonald, a prospect that will almost certainly boost the party’s current poll MRBI standing from its current 19% (unchanged).
With Labour stagnant and independents and other left-wing groups also largely unchanged the new year will likely reinforce a political landscape where there are three parties in contention when it comes to forming the next government.
The decision by the Sinn Féin ard fheis in November to drop its previous condition that it will only go into government if it is the largest party has altered the balance of relations between the three. While it may be a statement of the obvious it has forced FG and, more so, FF, to adopt an even more hostile attitude to the republicans who are barking at their heels in the government formation stakes.
With McDonald, arguably the most competent and impressive performer in the Oireachtas, taking the leadership reins by March there is a more intriguing choice on offer to the electorate when the time comes.
Sinn Féin insists that it will only enter government on the basis of a detailed programme with cast-iron guarantees of delivery on agreed timescales and there is no reason to believe otherwise.
Indeed, with or without the ‘Mary Lou factor’, the approach of its collective leadership that has determined its progress over recent years in the politics of the South, will almost certainly be to avoid the fate of smaller, leftwing, parties which always suffer from association with larger right-wing coalition partners.
That Sinn Féin also has a range of talented, potential cabinet members in its ranks, will make its prospective partners less rather than more anxious to invite them into the exclusive tent of government, dominated for decades by the two-and-a-half-party system.
Alternatively, if the left including Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats, left independents, Solidarity/PBP and others could bring their total vote close to 40%, unlikely as it may seem at this point, then other options may open.
Of course, if a deal with Sinn Féin is a step too far for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil they could always enter into a long-awaited embrace, ignore their marginal and minor differences and prepare the way for a grand coalition and ultimately a single centre-right political bloc. Their choice.