General election is off the cards for now but there's a lively year ahead

Editorial Comment

The phoney war between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil may be over, for now at least, but even without a General Election in 2019 the next 12 months promise to be an interesting time for Irish politics.

Last year we had the excitement of the history-making vote on the Eighth Amendment (along with the utter tedium of the Presidential campaign) and while 2019 doesn't offer up anything as politically exciting there is still the matter of the Local and European elections.

Typically the Locals are a relatively humdrum affair - with the individual battles really only of interest in their respective constituencies - but next May will be a different matter.

With a General Election now all but guaranteed to take place in early 2020 - following Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin's renewal of their confidence and supply deal - the main parties will be using next May's local contest to prepare the ground for an all out battle the following year.

It will provide a chance for the parties to hone their message ahead of the General Election and the vote will provide the ultimate poll on the state of the parties.

Opinion polls show that Fianna Fáil is narrowing the gap on Fine Gael and Michael Martin's party is now close to the 30 per cent rating they have craved since the party's complete electoral collapse in 2011.

According to the polls Sinn Féin has been feeling the heat with its popularity slipping while Labour struggles to regain any form of relevancy among an left wing electorate that have abandoned the party in favour of other hard left groupings.

The main parties - and some of the better off Independents - have all been carrying out their own internal polls while keeping an eager eye on the work of the professional polling companies.

Every single one of those polls will be rendered almost meaningless by the Local Elections which will provide the parties with a street by street breakdown of precisely how they are faring.

A professionally conducted survey with an accurate population sample is good - and they are usually fairly accurate - but nothing can beat a full tally of what every voter in the country did in the privacy of the polling booth.

Remember too that these are the opinions of those politically invested people who actually go to trouble of voting in local elections that often pass by largely ignored by vast swathes of the electorate.

Is there a rural urban divide in Ireland and will it hurt Fine Gael? Have voters forgiven Fianna Fáil for the economic crash? Doe's Labour have a prayer of restoring its fortunes? Is the housing crisis an issue across the whole country or is it contained in the cities? And what of the Government policies that have blamed for decimating countless small communities

The answers to these questions and many more will be far clearer in five months time and the parties will have plenty of time to adjust their messages to suit the new reality.

The preliminary scuffles are over. Now its time for the first real battle in what is set to be a long, hard and bitter war.