Sinn Fein has topped the polls in Ireland’s General Election.
The remarkable result was confirmed with the conclusion of the first round of counting in all 39 constituencies.
The party received 24.5% of the vote share, Fianna Fail got 22.2% and Fine Gael 20.9%.
Despite that, Fianna Fail remains best placed to secure the most seats, primarily due to Sinn Fein’s failure to field enough candidates to capitalise on its unexpected surge at the polls.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has failed to rule out entering government with Sinn Fein after an election set to transform the political landscape in Ireland.
While Mr Martin declined the opportunity to repeat his pre-election pledge never to do business with Sinn Fein, Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar did re-state his determination not to partner up with Mary Lou McDonald’s party.
Mr Martin later cautioned observers not to “jump the gun” in interpreting his remarks as a signal an alliance with Sinn Fein was in the offing.
Mrs McDonald said she was willing to talk to all political leaders but expressed a desire to lead a coalition made up of left-leaning parties, without any input from Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, which are both centre-right in outlook.
While it remains unclear whether it will ultimately be part of any future coalition, Sinn Fein’s performance has undoubtedly sent shockwaves through Ireland’s political establishment.
Final results remain a long way off, with counting set to continue through Monday, but the first wave of declarations suggest it is set to shatter Ireland’s long-established two-party system.
Despite topping the polls across the country when first preferences were added up, Sinn Fein is still unlikely to emerge with the most seats.
That is mainly because it ran significantly fewer candidates than its two main rivals – 42 compared to Fianna Fail’s 84 and Fine Gael’s 82.
That will see a significant number of Sinn Fein surplus votes being transferred to other parties in the proportional representation contest.
It is a shakedown that could benefit Sinn Fein indirectly, if its surpluses boost the numbers of potential left wing partners in government.
Fianna Fail looks in prime position to return as the largest party with Fine Gael braced for the loss of several seats.
No party will come close to securing the 80 seats required for a majority in the Dail parliament, so some form of coalition government is inevitable.
Arriving at his count centre in Cork, Mr Martin would not rule out working with Sinn Fein or Fine Gael, having definitively refused to countenance either as coalition partners during the campaign.
The Fianna Fail leader, who said his party looked like being on course to win the most seats, was repeatedly pressed to restate his opposition to a potential Sinn Fein partnership.
While insisting there were “significant incompatibility” issues in terms of policy, he did not dismiss the suggestion outright.
“Our policies, our positions and principles haven’t changed overnight or in 24 hours,” he said.
In a result symbolic of the Sinn Fein surge, the first seat declared in the election was the party’s Donnchadh O Laoghaire, who topped the poll in Cork South Central ahead of Mr Martin.
Mr Varadkar was also outpolled by a Sinn Fein candidate in Dublin West but was elected after the fifth round of counting.
Mr Martin said: “We will obviously listen. The people have spoken and there is no greater democrat than I, but that said we will not pre-empt the outcome itself because it’s very clear to us that the destination of the final seats in many constituencies cannot be called now.”
Mr Varadkar, whose party is predicting a seat total in the mid to high 30s having entered the campaign with 47, struck a different tone as he waited to be elected in the count centre at Phibblestown Community Centre.
He said he would not be speaking to Mrs McDonald with a view to forming a coalition, insisting Fine Gael was “not compatible with Sinn Fein”.
“My view on this is exactly what I have said during the campaign and what I said during the campaign and what my party said during the campaign wasn’t a tactic or a strategy, it was what we honestly believed and for us coalition with Sinn Fein is not an option,” he said.
“We are willing to talk to other parties about how we could form a government and give this country a government that can spend the next five years dealing with the problems that we have had to tackle for the past few years.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says Fine Gael has not changed position on a coalition with Sinn FÃ©in. âMy view on this has been exactly the same. For us, a coalition with Sinn FÃ©in is not an option. We are willing to talk to other parties about how we could form a government.â #GE2020 pic.twitter.com/dMrkyKQXcA— Ãine McMahon (@AineMcMahon) February 9, 2020
If parties do ultimately stick to their pre-election pledges then it would be extremely difficult for any of the three to lead a majority government.
Smaller parties such as the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and Solidarity/People Before Profit, and a sizeable number of independent TDs, may all be courted as the main parties seek junior coalition partners.
Arriving at the RDS count centre in Dublin, Mrs McDonald branded talk of excluding her party as “undemocratic”.
She said she had been in touch with the Greens, Social Democrats and People Before Profit to discuss the prospect of them joining her party in government.
“It’s been an election about change,” she said.
The moment Mary Lou McDonald tops the poll in Dublin Central with 11,223 votes. pic.twitter.com/ZTieTAbpl9— Cate McCurry (@CateMcCurry) February 9, 2020
“The extraordinary thing is that it seems that the political establishment, and by that I mean Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are in a state of denial.
“They are still not listening to what the people have said.
“I want us to have a government for the people. I want us to have ideally a government with no Fianna Fail or Fine Gael in it.
“I have started the contact with other parties to explore over the next days whether that is a possibility.
“I also have to say this, that in any event I do not accept the exclusion, or talk of excluding our party, a party that represents almost a quarter of the electorate.
“I think that is fundamentally undemocratic.”
Asked if the result marked a revolution in Irish politics, Mrs McDonald replied: “Yes, you could call it that for sure.”
The uncertainty created by the exit poll has even thrown up the possibility of another General Election being necessary.
There are 160 seats in the Dail parliament.
The speaker is automatically re-elected, leaving 159 seats up for grabs and 80 the magic number for a majority.
Vote transfers will be crucial in the proportional representation contest.
Mr Varadkar’s last government, a minority Fine Gael-led administration that included several independent TDs, was sustained in power through a historic confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fail.
That landmark pact between two parties founded from opposing sides of Ireland’s civil war of the 1920s took 70 days to negotiate following the inconclusive 2016 general election.
A new confidence and supply deal cannot be ruled out, potentially a reverse of the last one, with Fine Gael supporting a Fianna Fail-led minority.
The fractured vote could even force Ireland’s two traditional political superpowers to contemplate the once unthinkable, a grand coalition in government together.
Brexit did not feature prominently in an election campaign which was instead dominated by domestic issues like spiralling rental prices, record-breaking homeless numbers, controversy over the state pension age and a struggling health service.
The exit poll, carried out by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of The Irish Times, RTE, TG4 and UCD, suggested that only 1% of voters highlighted Brexit as their main concern.
Health (32%) and housing or homelessness (26%) were the most important deciding factors in how people voted.
Counting, which is taking place across the state’s 39 constituencies, is expected to last at least two days.
There is a mix of three, four and five-seat constituencies.