One thing was noticeable in the leader's address by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny to his party's annual conference last weekend. He did not explicitly rule out the possibility of having Sinn Fein as a partner in the next government, something that has really upset some of the stalwarts in the party.

I think they are worrying unnecessarily, but we will come back to that in a moment.

Kenny brought the Fine Gael annual conference to the town of Castlebar in his home county of Mayo in the west of Ireland, the first time he has done so since becoming taoiseach. That alone caused great excitement among his supporters, all of whom were aware that it could be the last Fine Gael conference before the next election.

The election must be held before April 3 next year, and it is most unlikely that Kenny will want to go right to the wire before the vote. To do so would run the risk of an unforeseen problem cropping up at the last minute which could skew the vote, with no time left for recovery.

He won't want to risk that, despite his repeated assertions that the government would serve its full term. So the election could come at any time, early next year, or later this year, perhaps after a soft budget in October with some tax cuts and giveaways.

For that reason all the political parties here are now in election mode. And none more so than the two parties in the present government, Fine Gael and Labour.

They both want to have the maximum time before the vote to allow the recovery in the economy to continue, with unemployment falling, take home pay improving and confidence and the feel good factor slowly returning.

But it's a balancing act. Leaving it too long could be dangerous.

The core election message from Fine Gael was put across strongly at the conference. Recovery is now underway. For that to continue, political stability is vital.

Economic stability depends on political stability. Without it, foreign investment here will dry up.

None of the other parties, or combinations of them, offer the required stability. In contrast, they offer economic chaos. Fine Gael, the party that saved the country after the bailout, is the only choice to lead the next government.

Kenny emphasized in his address that the austerity era of higher taxes and new charges in Ireland is over. The last budget had given people a small increase in take home pay, he said, the first time this had happened in seven years.

Forthcoming budgets would continue to steadily reduce the tax burden on working people. And he gave an undertaking that there would be no extra charges introduced in the next few years.

Despite the terrible hammering the government has taken over the new water charge, Kenny is determined to make history by becoming a two term Fine Gael taoiseach.

That might have seemed ridiculous just six months ago. But the water charge issue has largely been diffused following the slashing of what it will cost the average household. That was evident in the much lower numbers who turned out for the latest water charge protests last weekend.

No one likes having to pay, but there is increasing awareness that money has to be found to improve the national water system which is in a dire state. And there is increasing unease at the kind of people who are involved in organizing the protests and the tactics that are being used.

Putting all this together, Fine Gael are growing in confidence that despite the widespread anger in the population in general about the austerity of the past few years, they have a fighting chance of convincing voters across the country that they are the best party to lead the next government.

Kenny emphasized to the conference that putting Fianna Fail – the party that wrecked the country – back into office would be lunacy. There will be no going back, he said.

He also insisted that Sinn Fein and the motley crew of independents – and any combination of them with Fianna Fail – could not offer a coherent platform for the future and would be a recipe for instability in government with disastrous consequences for our recovery.

All of this is likely to play well with the majority middle class section of the population here, the so-called squeezed middle. They don't like the new property tax and the new water charge, but they see the recovery taking hold and the Fine Gael message about the vital importance of protecting that recovery will resonate strongly with them. That will see them abandoning the independents – who by definition can't have a coherent common policy platform – before the next election.

The weak link in support for the present government, of course, is Labour. Rightly or wrongly they carry most of the blame for the way the austerity regime has impacted on ordinary families.

In traditional Labour-supporting working class areas and particularly in deprived areas where most people live on welfare, Sinn Fein has been mopping up support. Just as Sinn Fein stole the votes of the SDLP in the North they are taking the working class votes down here, promising to end austerity and water and property charges by piling taxes on "the rich."

The two most recent national opinion polls have Fine Gael and Sinn Fein neck and neck to be the most popular party in the country.

The first a few weeks ago had Sinn Fein slightly ahead, which set off alarm bells across middle Ireland. The other one, last week, had Fine Gael back in front, with the party on 24 percent, Sinn Fein on 21 percent, Fianna Fail on 18 percent, Labour on a miserable seven percent and independents on 30 percent.

It is too early to read very much into these numbers, but it is clear that Fine Gael is recovering and it has plenty of time left to build on that.

It is also clear that Sinn Fein will be a strong player after the next election and could be a part of the next government.

Which brings us back to why the Taoiseach in his speech to the party conference did not rule out Sinn Fein as a possible coalition partner after the election.

There is no doubt that most Fine Gael voters would not want Sinn Fein in government, tainted as they are by the horrific violence and criminality of the recent past and by ongoing Republican criminality. In fact most of middle Ireland would be appalled at the prospect of Sinn Fein in government.

The Stalinist structure of the party, its ambivalent attitude to democracy and its socialist policies are also a concern.

But in reality there is little to fear. The prospect of Sinn Fein getting a leading role in government down here is still remote.

The Nationalist card does not play as strongly down here as it did in the North. As time goes on between now and the election, the vast majority of voters here, even those who are angry about tax hikes and extra charges, are likely to move back behind the mainstream parties, particularly Fine Gael.

Sinn Fein will do well in the deprived areas, but even there they face a battle with the more extreme left wing independents, especially on the water issue.

As the election approaches they are likely to be torn between two positions, trying to outflank the radical independents and at the same time trying to move to the center to appear responsible enough for government.

The most likely outcome, if they do end up in government down here, is that they will be a minor player, much as the Labour Party has been in the present administration. And they are so keen to get into power that they will be more than willing to moderate their policies to fit in.

We have seen this already in the North, of course, where Sinn Fein formed a government with Paisley's Unionists and are operating the British version of austerity up there, including the water charges they so vehemently oppose down here.

A lot of the policies they are pushing down here at the moment won't see the light of day in any government. For example, they are promising a new top rate of tax for those earning over €100,000 and a one percent wealth tax on assets of over €1 million, to replace both water charges and the property tax.

It may sound good to those on low incomes, but the reality is neither would bring in enough revenue. To do that, their new higher income tax rate would have to kick in at €70,000 and that would cost them a lot of potential votes.

It's the same with their proposed wealth tax. In spite of the boom, there are not that many homes worth over a million or many individuals with huge amounts of accumulated assets. The fact is that taxes here are already extremely high (a marginal rate of over 52 percent for anyone earning over €32,800).

If Sinn Fein do get into government down here they will have to get real, just as they have done in the North. That means moving to the center, and the signs are already there that they will do so.

There's nothing to fear. And if it means preventing a toxic coalition government between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein Kenny would be right to offer them a place beside him at the cabinet table. That's why he did not explicitly rule out the Sinn Fein option last weekend.