Are we heading back towards slippery slopes last visited in 2006?
The political landscape shifted towards the end of the year. First, in favour of Fianna Fáil, when Leo Varadkar appeared ready to cause a general election rather than seek the resignation of then tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. But public opinion swung back when the Taoiseach invoked European Union support and challenged the British government by opposing a hard border between North and South.
From a position where support for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had differed by a handful of points for much of the year, December saw Fine Gael draw dramatically ahead. It may not last, but party members basked in the prospect of maintaining an ascendancy over Fianna Fáil. For Micheál Martin, it was an unwelcome setback as he rebuilt the party and warned against sharing power with Sinn Féin.
On that issue, both leaders were in agreement. Sinn Féin represented a common enemy and the political centre had to hold. For months, Varadkar had berated Sinn Féin for not representing their Northern constituents through a Northern Ireland Executive and because of their abstentionist policy at Westminster. Then he and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney dispensed with diplomatic niceties and emphasised the economic damage a hard border would do to both communities in the North and to businesses in the South. They followed up by extracting undertakings from Theresa May that dismayed the DUP and caused devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales to seek similar treatment. Verbal fudges followed.
With the death of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin lost political momentum in the North. The decision to collapse the Executive and Assembly because of what was presented as DUP unwillingness to grant nationalists respect and parity of esteem developed into a sterile standoff.
Both sides protested their anxiety to do a…