Republic's election campaign begins as February 8 polling day confirmed
CAMPAIGNING is under way in the south's general election after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ended months of speculation by naming February 8 as polling day.
The Fine Gael leader travelled to see President Michael D Higgins yesterday afternoon to ask for the formal dissolution of the Dáil parliament.
It is the first time since 1918 that there will be a general election held on a Saturday.
Announcing the election date, Mr Varadkar insisted it was the "right time" for the Republic to vote.
Outlining his rationale, he highlighted that the Brexit withdrawal deal had been agreed and power-sharing was restored in Northern Ireland.
He said there was a window before the European Council summit in March for an incoming government to secure a fresh mandate ahead of the next stage of Brexit negotiations.
The poll will be Mr Varadkar's first general election as taoiseach.
He said it had been a "privilege" to lead the country since he took over from Enda Kenny in 2017.
"As a nation, we have every reason to be hopeful about the future," said Mr Varadkar.
"We've modernised our society – marriage equality, women's rights, real progress in education, welfare and childcare.
"But, it's not enough. I know it's not enough. People want their government to do much more. And I want us to do much more."
He added: "Now I seek a fresh mandate so we can continue to build a better future. A future we can all look forward to."
Mr Varadkar said he decided to hold an election on a Saturday to avoiding inconveniencing families by closing schools on a weekday, and to "make it easier for students and those working away from home to cast their votes".
However, the date clashes with with some major sports matches such as Ireland's Six Nations rugby match against Wales at Dublin's Aviva stadium.
The dissolution of the 32nd Dáil will end the historic confidence-and-supply deal between the state's two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
The landmark pact between two parties founded from opposing sides of Ireland's Civil War of the 1920s was struck in the wake of the inconclusive 2016 general election.
The arrangement, along with the support of several independent TDs, had kept Mr Varadkar's administration in power ever since.
Mr Varadkar's personal preference was for a poll in the early summer, but changing arithmetic in the Dáil meant he could no longer guarantee a majority on key votes.
Health and housing are set to be two key campaign issues, as the state continues to battle its worst ever housing crisis and hospital overcrowding reached record levels last year.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said: "For us and the Irish people in particular this is a vital election in terms of their future because we are facing enormous challenges.
"Particularly in terms of housing – the inability of people to afford houses, housing prices and housing rents are simply far too high and there is a deep, deep crisis of homelessness right across every level of housing.
"In health, again, we have a very serious crisis in terms of emergency departments and in terms of people waiting far too long for operations and procedures and for out-patient departments.
"Things are simply not working in this country in so many areas."
While the election result will likely see the two main parties canvassing for junior partners in a new coalition government, they have both ruled out going into power with Sinn Féin.
Party president Mary Lou McDonald insisted her rivals cannot dictate whether Sinn Féin voters are good enough for government.
She said the current government was "completely out of touch".
"This election is about choices. It is about the future and the type of country we want to live in," she said.
"Sinn Féin will be standing on a platform of giving workers and families a break.
"Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are about the status quo."