I haven't written about Irish politics for quite some time as I have had less time to write overall and the antics in Britain have kept me enticed. Unfortunately, following British politics these days is a little bit like watching the 2000s TV show Lost; it is hard to take your eyes off but you never seem to get anywhere from watching it.
I've spent some time looking at the polls and recent events in Ireland and I still believe Fine Gael is in the driving seat to win the most seats at the next election and could even come quite close to an absolute majority if a few things go their way.
There is no doubt that the Confidence and Supply Agreement has been much more beneficial to Fine Gael than Fianna Fail. The contrasting fortunes of Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin since the last election on Friday 26th February, 2016 are striking given Fianna Fail came within 1.2% and 6 seats of equalling Fine Gael's performance.
In hindsight, I've come to believe Fianna Fail gave way too much in exchange for very little. While the formation of the government did take quite some time and the public was getting itchy for progress, they effectively allowed Fine Gael to take complete control with no real opposition in a period of sustained economic growth. Not only that but with Brexit, Fine Gael were able to really boost their support by being seen to stand firm in their desire to prevent a hard border and protect Irish interests.
From this perspective, very few could have predicted when Fianna Fail and Fine Gael made their agreement on April 29th, 2016 just how potent a role Irish nationalism would play in the following three years. Even more difficult to predict would have been that Fine Gael would be the party to benefit the most form this dynamic.
The visuals of Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and even one of Ireland's least nationalist parliamentarians, Neale Richmond, firmly holding the line on the backstop and Brexit, in general, have been very powerful.
I started with this background because it's very difficult to asses the parties' relative strength today without looking at the wider context. While housing and health are both major issues of concern for the Irish electorate, the economy and Brexit seem to be playing a more active role in formulating Irish voters' opinions.
Firstly, the health care system has been a perennial problem for Irish governments and while public anger sparks up intermittently (the Children's Hospital overspend/ Simon Harris Confidence Vote being a recent example), I think to many it is simply something that can't be "fixed".
On a different note, the housing crisis is more of a double-edged sword. The rapid rise in purchasing and rental costs has caused serious hardship for many but (and this is less spoken about) the sharp rise in property prices has benefited many people, who are now either seeing their pre-Crisis properties return to the black or are simply enjoying the bump in the assets on their balance sheets.
There are risks for Fine Gael. A major climb-down on the backstop between now and March 29th or the unmitigated disaster of a No Deal Brexit could really damage though a No Deal Brexit now seems much less likely than an Extension to Article 50.
At some point in the mid-term, the Irish economy will slow down as this sustained period of economic growth can not continue forever. However, even then it is difficult to see why or how Fianna Fail or Sinn Fein will capitalize.
Fianna Fail has tacitly approved every legislative action Fine Gael has taken since the Confidence & Supply Agreement commenced. They really are not in a position to criticise. While they have re-grown their core base, I believe in an election campaign the undecideds will see through their allusion of being an opposition party.
At the same time, I don't believe Sinn Fein have truly done enough to convince the electorate (outside of their 15-20% core support) that they are ready to lead.
I personally would like to see Sinn Fein lead a centre-left coalition and break the hegemony of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail but over the last 18 months they have simply shouted too much while failing to deliver eye-catching, transformative policies like what we are seeing from Labour in Britain or Bernie Sanders and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States.
Fine Gael have, rightly or wrongly, positioned Sinn Fein as a party of protest and complainers. Unfortunately for Mary Lou McDonald, the label is beginning to stick. I do believe Sinn Fein can mount a more concerted challenge to Fine Gael than Michell Martin's Fianna Fail currently can but this will not be the case if we see an election in 2019. Sinn Fein will need longer to deliver these policies through a groundbreaking manifesto as there have been rapid changes in the Left in the kast 18 months; nationalisation, wealth taxes, company ownership and battling climate change are now very much part of the conversation.
For all of these reasons, I find it very, very difficult to envisage an Irish General Election in 2019, where Fine Gael do not win the most seats. The real question is whether Fine Gael will be able to orchestrate an election. Obviously, if local and European elections go badly for them in May, then my thesis is wrong and they may be happy to see out the new Confidence & Supply extension until summer 2020.
However, if I am correct and Fine Gael do win quite comfortably, I expect them to up the ante with the aim of forcing an Autumn election, without being deemed by the Irish public as being the party who forced it. A difficult but feasible task, particularly as a number of Micheal Martin's colleagues are becoming less and less comfortable with the Confidence & Supply agreement, as recent remarks by John McGuiness and Marc McSharry have shown.
In summary, my view that Fine Gael will win the Most Seats in the next election hasn't changed, I also believe there is a very good chance we'll see a 2019 election and finally the main opposition parties have to do more to differentiate themselves on policy, not just on soundbites...