Irish nationalists Sinn Fein demanded on Sunday (9 February) to be part of the next Irish government after early results indicated the left-wing party secured the most votes in an election that leader Mary Lou McDonald described as a ballot box “revolution”.
The former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, which has recast itself as the main left-wing party, secured 24% of first-preference votes, almost doubling its share from the last election in 2016, early results showed.
That put it narrowly ahead of the party of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and fellow centre-right rival Fianna Fail in an election analysts described as a seismic shift away from Ireland’s century-old, centre-right duopoly.
But Sinn Fein is likely to fall behind at least one of its rivals in terms of seat numbers because it stood far fewer candidates and is unlikely to be more than a junior partner in a government.
“This is certainly an election that is historic… this is changing the shape and the mould of Irish politics. This is just the beginning,” McDonald told reporters after arriving at her election count to a huge ovation from party supporters.
She said Sinn Fein would talk to all parties about forming a government and that others should accept their responsibility to do the same.
“I do not accept the exclusion or talk of excluding our party, a party that represents now a quarter of the electorate and I think that is fundamentally undemocratic,” she said.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, who have between them led every government since the foundation of the state, ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein before the election.
But although Varadkar reiterated his rejection due to “principle and policy”, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin declined to repeat earlier refusals to consider a coalition with Sinn Fein, saying only that there were significant incompatibilities on policy.
“Our policies and our principles have not changed overnight,” he said. “But what is important is that the country comes first.”
Sinn Fein has moved on from the long leadership of Gerry Adams, the face of the IRA’s war against British rule in Northern Ireland – a conflict in which some 3,600 people were killed before a 1998 peace deal.
Irish tricolour flags were flown at a Dublin count centre as Sinn Fein supporters were led in a chorus of the Irish rebel song “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” by a lawmaker jailed for possession of explosives in 1981.
Opponents of Sinn Fein say its high spending promises and pledge to increase taxes on the wealthy would discourage foreign multinationals that employ one-in-10 Irish workers.
But some parties have praised detailed policies such as a proposed rent-freeze and the large-scale building of houses by the state to tackle problems with the cost and availability of housing.
Varadkar’s Fine Gael, in power since 2011, was in third place on first-preference votes with 30 of 39 seats counted. The 41-year-old premier said it was not certain his party would have more seats than Sinn Fein.
Fine Gael’s focus on the fastest growing economy in the European Union and success in negotiating a Brexit deal that avoided a “hard border” with Northern Ireland – with border checks reinstated – failed to capture the imagination of voters more focused on issues such as health and housing.
Varadkar said he would talk to all parties except Sinn Fein about forming a government. The option of another minority government also remains, with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail backing the other from the opposition benches.
The final results may not be known until Monday or later.