A clear left-right split in the party system is now starting to emerge
The next election is set to be about choosing Fine Gael's coalition partners
A STRANGE event took place during the week. A significant policy in a highly sensitive area of the public service was outlined without any great fanfare, no PR people with clipboards, no promises of quick-fix solutions. Instead, implementation of this initiative won't actually happen for another five years and the impact won't be measurable for the best part of a decade.
The announcement won't deliver any poll bounce ahead of the local and European elections. In fact, the lack of detail and possibility of twisting the interpretation will mean it has the potential to be a negative. Of course, the get-out clause is that there is no cast-iron commitment to it, so it can always be backed out of in the coming years.
Universal health insurance, possibly the biggest transformation of the way the health service is run, is now on the agenda. But it isn't a short-term vote winner within this electoral cycle. It's a rare example of strategic thinking going beyond the lifetime of an administration.
Fine Gael appears to be increasingly comfortable with the idea of being elected to office in two consecutive terms for the first time in its history.
Frank Flannery is gone as a strategist but his legacy is the lateral thinking and instilling of the belief in the party that not only would it replace Fianna Fail as the largest party in the State, but also become the natural party of government.
The mishandling and ineptitude displayed in the garda controversies show how confidence and ground hard won are so easily lost, so nothing can be taken for granted.
Fine Gael has displayed a level of arrogance in office, suggesting that the party has quickly forgotten the barren years. Nonetheless, it is confident that the next general election will be fought on the economy and that it will be able to point to the emergence from the bailout, rising economic growth and lower levels of unemployment.
The opinion polls show Fianna Fail back level with Fine Gael, but this trend has yet to manifest itself at the ballot box. Barring the main government party continuing to flush away its credibility with the voters on avoidable accidents, the central question of the next general election is likely to be: who will go into government with Fine Gael for the next term? The shape of such a debate will suit Labour more than Fianna Fail or Sinn Fein, as the voters tend to like viable options for government being presented.
Universal health insurance is also a curiosity as it's being driven by a party which is supposed to be centre-right. Moving past the two-tier health service, by extending health insurance to everyone through a heavy subsidy for those who can't afford it and ensuring that medical care is based on need, not wealth, is about as left-wing as it's feasible to be.
Yet the sniping at the project has been led from the Left, not least by a particular element of Labour, which itself championed the policy for a decade in opposition.
The experience shows that the political-party system has still not broken down along clearly defined left-right lines.
The abortion and gay-marriage debates, where none of the four main parties have come down in outright opposition to the proposals, shows there isn't a straight conservative-versus-liberal divide either. Fianna Fail's traditional status as a catch-all party, attracting support across the social classes, skewed the pitch. The party's previous versatility in moving into spaces created by other groupings ensured that niche markets were hard to maintain.
But the question marks over Fianna Fail's ability to return to being a party contesting each general election as a prospective leader of the government throws up alternative scenarios. As a smaller entity, the party will have to carve out a more explicit identity. In the absence of the middle continuing to be an ill-defined area, spreading as far into the Left as it does into the Right, there's the possibility of greater clarity of ideological choice for the voters.
It won't have come about by the next general election, but if Fine Gael continues to develop long-term policy platforms, then the party will only but swing right. That flank is already exposed – even if the Reform Alliance has yet to take advantage of it – and somebody will eventually come along. However, the temptation for Fine Gael will be to stay in the safety of the centre to become the new catch-more-or-less-all party.
Sinn Fein faces a moment of truth in these local elections. The party has flattered to deceive before in failing to turn opinion poll results into votes on the day. It has broken out of being just another version of its distant cousins, the Workers Party or Democratic Left. After these local elections, the party ought to have a footprint right across the country, with a councillor in almost every local electoral area. To become the dominant force on the Left, the party will have to be challenging for seats in every Dail constituency next time round.
But Sinn Fein also runs the risk of drifting towards the centre once it gets a grip on middle-class votes.
Labour will also face the dilemma of where to go once the experiment of being a major player on the party scene ends and it drops back to its normal support levels.
Logically, a right-left alignment in Irish politics is on the horizon, but the shared history of the party system in this country means it is far from inevitable. Besides, the volatility of the electorate means punishment for parties that fail to live up to expectation is swift and brutal.
Ten years ago this week, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs was in Rwanda, representing the EU at genocide anniversary commemorations as Ireland held the EU Presidency. The then Taoiseach was becoming the toast of Europe as he pieced back together the Constitution for Europe.
At the time Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern seemed destined to reign for another decade at least, with no end in sight to Fianna Fail's dominance. Enda Kenny and Fine Gael were facing into the 2004 local and European elections with trepidation.
This just goes to show that predicting long-term trends in Irish politics is a mug's game.