Fine Gael election win is not enough to go it alone
Less than nine years after the party's collapse, Fine Gael recorded the best result in its history to become the biggest political party in the Irish Republic.
Exceptional vote management resulted in Fine Gael pulling off a series of significant wins, but the party fell short of being able to go it alone in government.
Nevertheless, the landmark election opened the way for a whole new era — though a daunting and difficult one — by decimating the once-proud Fianna Fail party which has dominated Irish politics.
Voters punished the party for presiding over the collapse of the Irish economy which led to a humiliating €85bn bailout from the IMF and European institutions.
From just 36% of the first preference votes, Enda Kenny’s party is expected to come away with 75 seats — a massive bonus of 15 and five more than Fine Gael's previous best result in November 1982, under Garret Fitzgerald.
Mr Kenny declared: “I intend to send out a clear message around the world that this country has given my party a massive endorsement to provide stable and strong government with a clear agenda. That's absolutely critical.”
The Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, made it obvious yesterday that his second-placed party hoped to receive approaches about coalition from Fine Gael.
Together, the two parties have already obtained more than 100 of the Dail's 166 seats after their best-ever performances.
“If Fine Gael want a government for a period of five years, strong, stable that brings together the two largest parties, in what will be the closest we're going to get in this country to essentially a national government, the Labour Party is willing to play its part in that,” Mr Gilmore said.
“But I do say that the window of opportunity for that to happen is very narrow. I believe that a government needs to be formed on the first day the Dail is back, which is March 9.”
Labour’s strong end to what was widely perceived to be a weak campaign propelled the party to its best-ever result as voters turned away from the idea of a Fine Gael majority government.
Nationally, it picked up 19.4% of first-preference votes, an increase of 9.3% on 2007, and almost doubled its number of seats from 20 to what could be as high as 38.
The party made history in Dublin North-West by ensuring that, for the first time since the 1920s, there is a constituency with no Fine Gael or Fianna Fail TD.
Sinn Fein also did well, more than doubling its Dail representation with its president, Gerry Adams, and other candidates polling particularly well.
The amount of independents and members of small parties was, at 17, the highest numberachieved for more than half a |century.
These striking advances were made at the expense of Fianna Fail, which had a historically poor result, dropping from more than 70 seats to around 20 as voters blamed it for economic difficulties. Since the 1920s it has won at least one seat in every constituency. Today, 25 constituencies of the 43 are Fianna Fail-free zones, causing debate on when, if ever, the party can hope to stage a recovery.
It suffered a series of “Portillo moments” as former ministers lost their seats. The casualties included the deputy prime minister Mary Coughlan and tourism minister Mary Hanafin, who lost their seats in an election in which female candidates did not fare well.
Fianna Fail was almost wiped out in Dublin, where the other big parties prospered. Brian Lenihan, the former finance minister who retained his seat against the trend, admitted: “The government has taken a hammering at the polls. I will do everything I can to rebuild the party and to be responsible opposition in the Dail.”
The Green party, which was in coalition with Fianna Fail, lost all its seats. Most of the independents elected stood on anti-government tickets, and some will provide a left-wing voice.
While it is technically possible for Fine Gael to form an administration with the support of independents, there is a strong national mood for an emphasis on stability after months of chaos.
This means that Fine Gael and Labour are expected to open talks this week on agreeing a formal coalition.