Theresa May's decision to call a snap election in Britain - following numerous pledges that she would do no such thing - took political watchers by surprise this week, especially here in Ireland where there has been an ongoing, daily, assumption that our current Government will fall any day now.
Despite Fine Gael's internal wrangling over leadership succession and Enda Kenny refusing to go; the highly damaging controversies surrounding An Garda Síochána; the defeat of the water charges; the recent bus strike; and the looming threats posed by Brexit; the current coalition is still standing - it will continue to do so until Fianna Fáil knows it can overtake FG in the polls. Whenever the next election comes though, the parties are already getting into battle mode.
Fianna Fáil v Fine Gael
Galway West has five TDs - Eamon Ó Cuív (FF ), Seán Kyne (FG ), Hildegarde Naughton (FG ), Catherine Connolly (Ind ), Noel Grealish (Ind ). Dep Ó Cuív holds the safest seat in the State and no matter when the next election is called, he will be returned. In effect, the remaining candidates are competing for four seats out of five.
This does not mean FF will run just one candidate. Political watchers have noted the recent upsurge in activity of Cllr Peter Keane who is leaving few in doubt about his desire to run in the next election. This is important on two fronts - Cllr Keane needs to show party members he is serious about standing; and he needs to raise his profile among voters outside his Galway City West base - especially as he will be competing for votes in the city with deputies Ó Cuív, Naughton, and Catherine Connolly.
With neither of the Crowe brothers seemingly willing to stand at the next General Election, this is Cllr Keane's opportunity to position himself as 'FF's man in Galway city' and the heir apparent to Dep Ó Cuív. There is one person though, who could stand in his way.
John Connolly was a city councillor from 2004 to 2009 and ran for FF in Galway West last year. Given his absence from the political front lines over a five year period, his total vote of 5,614; his lasting to the 12th count; and his picking up decent votes in areas where he was not widely known, will make him an appealing alternative choice for some. His main vote will straddle the city and Connemara, but he will find himself in a crowded region of heavy hitters like Ó Cúív, Kyne, and Sinn Féin senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh.
While FF may run a third candidate to cover the Oranmore/Claregalway area, the main battle will be between Connolly and Keane. However, a key factor that will focus FF minds is how FG in 2016 received 24.03 per cent of the vote and won two seats, while FF got 24.31 and came away with only one.
The challenge for FF will be to mirror the kind of vote management FG displayed in 2016, but that is a tall order. Dep Ó Cuív's vote last year (14.84 per cent ), dwarfed that of his running mates Connolly (6.04 ) and Cllr Mary Hoade (3.43 ). By contrast the FG candidates were all within a broadly similar range - Kyne (9.55 ), Naughton (7.11 ), and John O'Mahony (7.37 ) - allowing the third candidate to have a strong enough vote that, when transferred to the second candidate, pushed her into a seat.
FG's task is to repeat this, but the party in Galway is pessimistic it can retain its two seats. There is always at least one FG seat in Galway, and with Dep Kyne now securely established after two terms in the Dáil, and with a junior ministry, his standing and profile have never been higher, making him favourite to hold on. Polls since the start of the year have given FG mixed readings, ranging from 21 per cent to 28 per cent. The quota in Galway West is 30 per cent, but in 2016 FG won two seats with under 25 per cent. As such, FG should not give up on Dep Naughton, who is more than able to fight an election campaign.
Galway West can be confidently predicted to return one FF and one FG TD. A second FG seat is possible, but cannot be taken for granted. The remaining two/three seats will be fought by FG, Sinn Féin, Independents, Labour, the Social Democrats, and Solidarity (ie, AAA/The Socialist Party ) and People Before Profit (ie Socialist Workers Party ).
Of the independents Noel Grealish is in a good position to retain his seat, having won the second seat comfortably in 2016. He also has a network of former PD colleagues such as councillors Declan McDonnell, Donal Lyons, Terry O'Flaherty, and Jim Cuddy, who will bat hard for him on the campaign trail.
The most fascinating battle may be between the various Left candidates. Dep Catherine Connolly is the undisputed Left (red ) flag bearer in Galway West, and given the constituency has long had a left seat, she would be expected to retain it. Does this mean Sen Ó Clochartaigh and Sinn Féin will be denied again?
Ironically, the chances of Sinn Féin taking a seat may be dependent on how FG does. If FG struggle to take a seat, SF could sneak in, and despite the party's poll figures ranging widely from 14 to 24 per cent, either end of that spectrum is enough to take a seat. The party though continues to face a huge problem in picking up transfers and its chief candidate being located in a region dominated by Dep O Cuív and to a lesser extent, Dep Kyne.
Many believe SF needs to run a second candidate, and that if Cllr Mairéad Farrell runs in the city, SF can pull together a strong enough vote to take a seat. Such a ticket is the source of divisions within the party between its old guard and Young Turks. Expect this one to rumble on for a while yet.
Labour, meanwhile, is reduced to the pitiful position of being an also-ran before the race has even started. There is speculation Cllr Niall McNeilus will be asked to stand in order for the party to have some presence in the constituency, but with polls showing Labour from four to six per cent, there is no seat to be won. Also worrying for Labour is how many of its voters opted for Niall Ó Tuathail and the Soc Dems in 2016 and, would be willing to do so again, as Labour struggles to define itself.