The people have spoken, but figuring out how to produce a stable government that reflects their wishes is likely to take a lot longer than the three-week campaign that produced this remarkable result. In this era of political fragmentation, when no party can be said to win an election, identifying what voters don't want is easier than seeing what they do.
Certainly, the result is a rejection of Fine Gael, which has suffered the third-worst result in its history (after 1944 and 1948). It is also a rejection of the status quo in health and housing, which drove support for Opposition parties. The largest of those in the new Dáil is Fianna Fáil, but Micheál Martin's party has also had a terrible election – only 2011 was worse – and it owes its numerical superiority chiefly to Sinn Féin having run too few candidates. Even allowing for the surge in backing for Sinn Féin, three-quarters of voters gave their first preference to other parties.
But the beneficiaries of the decline in support for the traditional Big Two were clearly Sinn Féin and, to a lesser extent, the Greens and Social Democrats. That makes it difficult to envision a stable administration – and one that is seen to reflect the mood of the country – without including Sinn Féin and another of those parties. If an apparent softening of Martin's position on talks with Mary Lou McDonald is maintained and Fine Gael acts on Simon Coveney's signal that it should regroup in opposition, the first option, once initial exploratory exchanges are complete, could be a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin alliance, perhaps with the involvement of the Greens.
This would require a spectacular U-turn by Martin which would risk alienating those supporters and Dáil colleagues who cannot abide Sinn Féin and fear being gobbled up by it. After years vilifying Fianna Fáil, McDonald would also have to moderate her rhetoric and blur some of those red lines – at the risk of losing those who want her party to break the duopoly, not join it. Green participation would add numerical and symbolic ballast but is not guaranteed and would introduce more policy tensions – not least on carbon taxes.
As we know from decades of Northern negotiations, Sinn Féin can compromise in pursuit of its strategic interests. Its has to calculate whether participation in government serves that end. Yet, in this scenario, two potential coalition partners would be exactly that: co-equals, or close enough to it. With no one side in a position to dominate, every trade-off – could Sinn Féin take control of the Department of Justice, for example, which probably retains files on some of its senior figures? – would be keenly fought over, and freighted with political and symbolic significance. Against that background, a coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at its core or, more likely, a failure of the 33rd Dáil to produce a working majority, are outcomes that are still in play.