Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries –
Ireland began counting votes on Sunday in a national election that an exit poll indicated would show a historic breakthrough for left-wing nationalists Sinn Fein but leave a fractured political landscape with no clear path to a governing coalition.
In a major realignment, Sinn Fein support surged 50 per cent to bring it into joint first place on 22 per cent with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the two centre-right parties that have dominated Irish politics for a century, according to the poll released on Saturday evening after voting ended.
But Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army which has reinvented itself as the country’s main left-wing party, is likely to fall behind the other two because it fielded fewer candidates for parliament.
Early counting appeared to back up the exit poll findings.
“I think it’s the most extraordinary exit poll in the history of state and the most extraordinary election in the history of the state… because of the rise of Sinn Fein,” said Gary Murphy, Professor of Politics at Dublin City University.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael and rival Fianna Fail are likely to be left slugging it out for first place in terms of seats — before starting what is set to be a tortuous process of forming a government in the 160-seat parliament.
“I think it will be very tight, the parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) are very close,” Fine Gael minister Richard Bruton said, adding that he saw “no flinching at all” in Fine Gael’s position of refusing to govern with Sinn Fein.
Counting under Ireland’s complex single transferable vote system began at 0900 GMT on Sunday with some results expected from early afternoon. The final and potentially decisive seats may not be filled until Monday or even later.
Sinn Fein has moved on from the long leadership of Gerry Adams, seen by many as 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.
Early tallies showed new leader Mary Lou McDonald had more than twice the number of votes needed for election in her constituency. The pattern looks set to be replicated across the country but Sinn Fein will be disadvantaged by having only one candidate in most of the multi-seat contests.
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 Dessie Ellis, an outgoing lawmaker who was jailed on possession of explosives in 1981. — Reuters