Sinn Féin surge smashes Republic's political status quo

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin pictured as results in the Republic unfolded yesterday 
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin pictured as results in the Republic unfolded yesterday 

SINN Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has heralded a transformation in the Republic's political landscape after her party made unprecedented gains that could potentially see it become a key player in Dublin's next government.

Counting in the Dáil election will continue today but a picture had emerged last night of a new three-party system with Sinn Féin on an equal footing with its establishment rivals Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

With all first preference votes counted last night, Sinn Féin came out on top with 24.5 per cent of the vote, ahead of Fianna Fáil on 22.2 per cent and Fine Gael on 20.9 per cent.

In London, Downing Street said the UK's close relationship with Ireland would continue regardless of the outcome of the election which has seen Sinn Fein emerge as the most popular party in the country.

"We are of course following the results of the Irish election carefully," the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.

"The UK and Ireland are close neighbours and friends and we look forward to continuing to work together."

The spokesman added: "The close relationship between the UK and Ireland will continue regardless of the election result."

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All indications suggest Ms McDonald's party was matching the performance signalled in Saturday's night exit poll, which showed little difference between the three parties.

With 94 of 160 Dáil seats declared, Sinn Féin have secured 34 compared to 19 for Fianna Fáil and 18 for Fine Gael.

Both Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and his Fine Gael counterpart Leo Varadkar campaigned on the basis that they would not share power with Sinn Féin in a coalition.

While the outgoing taoiseach was last night reiterating his opposition to going into government with Ms McDonald's party, Mr Martin appeared to moderate his language, saying he would listen to the electorate.

Analysis (Premium):

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Speaking as she was re-elected as a TD for Dublin Central, Ms McDonald said she agreed with the assessment that southern politics had witnessed a revolution at the ballot box.

"Obviously this election was all about change – Sinn Féin went to the people and we convinced them in very, very large numbers that we are the alternative, that we are the vehicle for change," she said.

"We asked people to give us a chance to deliver the platform that we have set out and that platform is about solving the housing crisis, it is about getting to grips with the crisis in our health services, it is about giving families and workers a break and breathing space so that ordinary people begin to experience this economic recovery that they have heard so much about."

The Sinn Féin leader said what she termed the "political establishment" was failing to listen to the people and were "in a state of denial".

"It's a statement that people want a different type of government and people have great confidence in us, and I say that with all humility," she said.

Ms McDonald said she had already spoken to the Greens, Social Democrats and the People Before Profit with the aim of forming government that excluded the two establishment parties.

"The best outcome is with a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael so that's the first thing I want to test, whether or not that's possible," she said.

Mr Varadkar congratulated Sinn Féin on its election performance but said his position on joining the party in a coalition had not changed.

"I made my position and that of Fine Gael very clear during the election campaign and we won our votes on that basis – my position hasn't changed," he said.

"Nobody can be forced into some sort of forced marriage or forced coalition."

Mr Varadkar, who was re-elected in Dublin West on the fifth count, said he had heard Mr Martin's remarks in which he failed to rule out a coalition with Sinn Féin but believed what the Fianna Fáil leader said was "open to interpretation".

The Fine Gael leader said his party was "not compatible" with Sinn Féin and that he was unconcerned that Ms McDonald was already speaking to other parties.

Mr Martin has said there are “significant issues to be resolved” but refused to rule out a coalition with Sinn Féin.

Asked whether he was expecting to speak to the Sinn Féin leader, he said he would "let things calm down" and wait for the count to be completed.

He said he was a democrat who listened to the people and respected the "decision of the people".

"That said, for any government to sustain, there has to be compatibility in terms of the programme for government – it has to be coherent, and it has to be sustainable and deliverable," he said.

"And there are very significant issues that can’t be glossed over in the euphoria of a of an election day and the all of the tension and the interest and excitement around it. So I think over the next number of days people will assess that situation in terms of such a policy platform."