Sinn Féin candidates stormed to a series of spectacular victories in general election counts last night, reshaping Ireland’s political landscape as party leaders begin to turn their attention to how the next government might be formed.
Though many seats remain to be filled and counts will continue this morning, a hung Dáil, which will be dominated by three big parties – Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – is inevitable.
Sinn Féin candidates all over the country won huge victories, with many elected on the first count with huge surpluses, catapulting the party into the front rank of Irish politics and making it a contender for government. Fine Gael seems certain to suffer losses, while Fianna Fáil looks set to be the largest party in the new Dáil, analysts were projecting last night.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reiterated he would not form a government with Sinn Féin, but indicated a coalition with Fianna Fail could be possible, saying "we are willing to talk to other parties about the possibility of forming a new government, one that would lead the country forward for the next five years".
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, while hailing her party’s successes around the country, took steps to contact other left-wing parties to arrange talks on government formation. Speaking at Dublin’s RDS, she said she wants to explore whether such a new government would be possible.
“I also have consistently said that I will talk to and listen to everybody, I think that is what grown-ups do and that is what democracy demands.” Ms McDonald, who was re-elected last evening with a big majority, said it was “not sustainable” for either the Fine Gael leader or the Fianna Fáil leader “to say they will not speak to us, representatives of such a sizeable section of the Irish electorate”.
Fianna Fáil sources reported an emerging debate in the party about potential coalition with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. Party leader Micheál Martin appeared to soften his pre-election refusal to contemplate coalition with either of his two rivals, declining to explicitly rule out a coalition deal with either.
Mr Martin said for any government to be sustainable, the policy platforms between the participating parties have to be compatible. "It has to be coherent and it has to be sustainable and deliverable. They're very significant issues that can't be glossed over in the euphoria of an election day and all of the tension, interest and excitement around it," he said.
Later, Mr Varadkar seemed to echo Mr Martin’s views when he said to form a government together “you need to have roughly the same views around the courts of the criminal justice system, around how the economy and society should be run and also how democracy should function and that’s what makes my party, Fine Gael, not compatible with Sinn Féin”.
Opinion was divided in Fianna Fáil on whether it should enter coalition with Sinn Féin or Fine Gael, or stay out of government. The divide was evident on the party’s backbench and among the frontbench of Mr Martin’s most senior TDs.
“Government with Fine Gael isn’t a radical gesture,” said one member of the frontbench. “I don’t see how Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can be seen as reflecting a radical general election result. Sinn Féin is a mixture of Brexit Party populism and nationalism that kinda has to be tempered in my view – or else the centre collapses.” Another TD said he would prefer coalition with Sinn Féin rather than Fine Gael, adding Mr Martin “needs to swallow his pride” or step down as party leader.
Galway TD Éamon Ó Cuív has suggested that Fianna Fáil must consider coalition government with Sinn Féin rather than a grand coalition with Fine Gael.
Mr Ó Cuív, who topped the poll in Galway West, said he has always been open to a coalition with Sinn Féin and that he would be "totally opposed" to any arrangements which would see Fine Gael retain power. "There is great arguments going on all day about whether we are nearer Sinn Féin or Fine Gael," Mr Ó Cuív said.
“My heart is much nearer the Sinn Féin side of the argument in terms of services for the people and putting the people before economic theory.”
Another senior Fianna Fáil TD last night said if the party was to share power with Fine Gael, "We may as well shut up shop." However, the TD also added Sinn Féin should be allowed to form a government of the left. But others in Fianna Fáil are more open to coalition with Fine Gael, perhaps including one of the small parties, such as the Greens.
Senior Fine Gael sources said they expected Mr Varadkar would approach Fianna Fáil about entering into a grand coalition.
Though most counts were continuing last night and will resume this morning, there were already some high-profile casualties. Minister for Transport Shane Ross lost his seat in Dublin-Rathdown, while his fellow Independent Cabinet minister Katherine Zappone looked set to lose out in Dublin South-West. Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty lost her seat in Meath East. Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor lost her seat in Dún Laoghaire, Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger lost her seat in Dublin West and Government chief whip Seán Kyne looks likely to lose his seat in Galway West. The former Labour leader Joan Burton lost her seat in Dublin West, while high-profile Fine Gael backbenchers Noel Rock and Kate O'Connell are likely to lose out.