A sense of panic has set in among the mainstream political parties here mainly due to the two most recent national opinion polls, both of which showed the rise of Sinn Fein to a dominant position. It has started a lot of talk about a fundamental shift in Irish politics and a lot of speculation in the past week about an early general election.

The first poll was done for the Sunday Independent and appeared at the start of November. It revealed that Sinn Fein, on 26 percent, had become the most popular party in the country, four points ahead of the main party in the government, Fine Gael, on 22.

The party which once dominated Irish politics for decades, Fianna Fail, had recovered somewhat after its near annihilation, but was still only on 20 percent. The Independents, at 23 percent, were continuing to do well. And the junior partner in government, Labor, was still doing badly at seven percent, despite its change in leadership.

The second poll appeared in The Sunday Business Post on November 23 and it had Sinn Fein and Fine Gael neck and neck on 22 percent each, with Fianna Fail at 18 percent, Labor at eight percent and Independents at 30 percent.

The slight difference between the two polls is less important than the general picture they show, if taken together, which is that Sinn Fein is now the leading political party in the country.

Both polls were carried out before the government's revised water charges package which effectively cuts the cost of the new charges in half. But the continuing virulent opposition to any water charges at all in the last couple of weeks means this offers little comfort to the government parties.

The visceral anger at the water charges, even in their reduced form, is still significant, and the turnout on the national day of protest next Wednesday, December 10, will be a telling indicator on whether the government has any hope of recovering.

What the polls show clearly is that the present coalition government of Fine Gael and Labor has no chance of re-election, unless there is a miraculous turnaround in their popularity in the coming year. If these poll results were repeated in the next general election Fine Gael would lose around 30 seats, Labor would be lucky to hold on to four or five and together they would have no hope of forming a government.

What is also clear is that Fianna Fail is still badly tainted by its years in government which brought us the boom and then the catastrophic crash which led to the humiliation of the IMF-EU bailout. The party has recovered a little, but has been stagnant in the past few polls.

Clearly Fianna Fail has not been forgiven for what it did to us. It also has little hope of leading the next government or even being a significant player.

What this means, of course, is that the long era of successive Irish governments being led by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael may now finally be over. And we may be heading into a very uncertain political period as a result.

The irony of this situation for Fine Gael is that that it has come at the same time as they seem to be getting on top of our economic crisis.

We have exited the bailout. We have the strongest economic growth in Europe. We are at the end of the succession of austerity budgets of cutbacks and tax hikes we have endured over the past six years.

But instead of getting any payback for this turnaround, the two government parties, Fine Gael and Labor, are taking a hammering in the polls, and Sinn Fein and the independents are soaring.

This led last week to ministers from both parties launching an attack on Sinn Fein. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, in a TV interview, asked people to think carefully about the future.

Did they really want to put at risk all the progress that had been made, progress that was possible only because of the sacrifices of the Irish people in the past few years, by supporting the extreme left wing policies of Sinn Fein on the economy?

The rise of Sinn Fein has led to some green-tinged commentators even wondering if Gerry Adams could be the next taoiseach. But this is very unlikely for two reasons.

Firstly, Sinn Fein is currently surfing a tidal wave of anger among voters. It's not just about the water charges, it's also about the other charges and taxes that have eaten into the lives of people here over the past few years. The cumulative effect of all this was a build-up of anger that was seething away unseen but has now broken the surface thanks to the water charges, "the last straw," as many people have called them.

But the government is already working to lessen their impact, as we have now seen with the water charge reductions. Kenny is already talking about more tax cuts in upcoming budgets, about giving people something back as the recovery takes hold.

We can be sure there will be a great deal of this "giving back" over the next year in the run-up to the next election, all of which will lessen the anger that is out there right now.

The big protest wave that Sinn Fein is now riding will be much lower by the time the election comes around. It is also likely that as people begin to examine the left wing economic policies of Sinn Fein, which are tax-and-spend in the extreme, they will turn back to the mainstream parties at the center.

The second reason Adams won't be taoiseach is that the other parties will do everything they can to stop Sinn Fein leading a government, or even getting into a government. And this has led to a lot of speculation about the unthinkable happening here, a coalition or even a merger between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

As we all know, there is now virtually no difference between the two parties, apart from their origins on opposite sides of the Civil War 90 years ago. In economic and social policy, even in policy on Northern Ireland, which used to be the issue that differentiated them, the two parties are now almost indistinguishable.

There is no reason why they should not come together to form a government and eventually become a single combined party -- no reason, that is, apart from ego and careerism.

This would leave open the possibility at last of a real left-right divide in Irish politics, the kind of division that is normal in most other European countries. The Labor Party, some left wing independents and Sinn Fein could come together to offer such a left alternative. Except that Labor, like all the other parties, is vehemently opposed to any linkage with Sinn Fein because of the reasons we all know very well.

Given their shared Republican roots, a coalition between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein would be an obvious pairing, but even with a few independents added on they are very unlikely to be anywhere near a majority in the Dail (Parliament) after the next election.

Another possibility is that the independents -- which the second poll put at 30 percent, much bigger than any party -- could form a government with one of the main parties after the election. The problem with this is that the independents range from socialists on the hard left to extreme free market supporters on the right, with a lot of muddled individuals in the middle who don't fit easily into any camp.

Some of them, like the Fine Gael rebel Lucinda Creighton and the former university senator Shane Ross, are attempting to set up a new party in the New Year which will be right of center on economic issues and all about integrity (all new parties are!) Whether they succeed remains to be seen, but they need to move fast if they are to gain any traction before the election.

That does not have to be until the start of April 2016, but of course it could be before then if the government decides to cut and run. Despite the speculation, however, it is more than likely that the government will try to serve out its full term, given its current level of unpopularity. Things can only get better for them and they need time to show the voters that there is some payback on the way.

If the unthinkable were to happen and Sinn Fein were to end up in government here after the next election, this is one columnist who won't be crying. They would then have to enter the real world with all its limitations and difficult choices, instead of opposing everything.

The kind of facile point scoring that is so easy in opposition becomes very difficult when you're in office. The Neverland economics and lavish spending promises that can be trotted out in the Dail when you don't have to deliver suddenly are no longer possible.

A dose of realty like that would be the best thing that ever happened Sinn Fein. An added bonus would be that Adams would no longer be able to get away with nonsense like "the list of abusers was left in my letterbox in Belfast" -- given the security around his house delivering anything there without being vetted is impossible. A taoiseach or even a minister can't spout nonsense like this and expect to get away with it.

And before anyone raises the North where Sinn Fein are part of the government, there is one huge difference between being in power up there and down here. That is the massive subvention from the British taxpayer that keeps the North going, which is somewhere around £5 billion sterling a year.

We don't have that luxury here in the south. We have to stand on our own two feet and pay our own way or we go under. That makes all kinds of everyday decisions on tax and spending much harder here.

If Sinn Fein were to get into power down here, which is most unlikely, it would be a wake-up cold shower of reality for them. And that might not be such a bad thing.