Sinn Féin’s political tsunami has led Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to perform a major U-turn on potential coalition talks.
After a day of high drama, more than 20 Sinn Féin TDs exceeded the quota and were elected on the first count, with at least two Cabinet ministers and several junior ministers losing their seats.
In constituencies across the country, Sinn Féin candidates — including four who lost council seats only last May — topped the poll, with huge surpluses at the expense of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs.
When all 160 seats are filled, Fianna Fáil is likely to be the lead party with around 45 seats, Sinn Féin could win 35 to 37 seats, with Fine Gael coming in with 34 seats. However, with Sinn Féin surpluses going in many directions, calling the final seats is very difficult.
The surge in Sinn Féin represents an ending of the two-party system, which has dominated Irish politics for the past century, with the combined Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil vote dropping below 50% for only the second time.
Fine Gael received its lowest share of the vote since 1948 taking just 20.9% of first preferences.
Mr Martin, having consistently ruled out any prospect of a deal with Mary Lou McDonald’s party, has not ruled out discussions about forming a new government.
Mr Martin warned that forming a government will be “very challenging.”
“We will obviously listen,” he said. “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.
“I am making the point there is serious incompatibility between ourselves and Sinn Féin. But what is important, is that the country comes first.
“There is an onus on all that a functioning government is formed.”
Ms McDonald said she has already made moves to form a government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
“I want us to have ideally a government with no Fianna Fáil or no Fine Gael in it,” she said. “I have started the contact with other parties to explore over the next few days whether or not that is a possibility.
“We’ve been in touch with the Greens, with the Social Democrats, with People Before Profit and there are others.
“Like I said throughout the campaign, and I meant it when I said it, we need change we need a new government, the best outcome is a government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil so that’s the first thing that I want to test whether or not that is possible.
Hitting out at Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar, she said: “I do not accept the exclusion or talk of excluding our party — a party that represents almost a quarter of the electorate, I think this is fundamentally undemocratic.”
Mr Varadkar again ruled out any coalition deal with Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil, while Simon Coveney also ruled out a re-run of the confidence and supply deal.
In a sign of his party’s difficulties, Mr Varadkar failed to top the poll as has been the case with all previous Taoisigh and failed to be elected on the first count, coming 4,000 votes behind Sinn Féin’s Paul Donnelly.
In Cork, Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh O’ Laoghaire topped the poll in Cork South Central ahead of Mr Coveney. In Cork North Central, his party colleague, Thomas Gould, swept home on the first count with almost 3,500 votes to spare.
Mr Varadkar said he would not be speaking to Mrs McDonald with a view to forming a coalition, insisting Fine Gael was “not compatible with Sinn Féin”.
He said: “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.
“Nobody can be forced into some sort of forced marriage or forced coalition.”
He added that what his party said during the campaign “wasn’t a tactic or a strategy” and that it was what they honestly believed. Therefore, he said, that going into coalition with Sinn Féin was “not an option”.