Sinn Féin has started reaching out to leftwing parties to try to form a ruling coalition but potential allies have said there are insufficient parliamentary numbers to produce Ireland’s first government of the left.
Ireland’s traditional ruling parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, signalled on Tuesday that they would give Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, time to try to forge a rainbow alliance in recognition of her party’s stunning general election results.
McDonald announced that her negotiating team would be led by Pearse Doherty, the party’s high-profile finance spokesman.
The Sinn Féin team was due to hold talks in coming days with the Greens, Social Democrats and other potential partners. But few expect a deal that clinches 80 seats in Dáil Éireann, the number for a majority and stable government in the 160-seat parliament.
“It appears we don’t quite have the numbers,” Richard Boyd Barrett, a Dublin TD (MP) with the group Solidarity–People Before Profit, told Newstalk radio. “It would seem we are short of a majority.”
Matt Carthy, a Sinn Féin TD and member of its negotiating team, said the numbers would be “tight” but that given the public mood for change the party had an obligation to talk first to leftwing parties before considering other potential partners.
Sinn Féin took 37 seats after winning 24.5% of the first-preference vote in Saturday’s election, almost doubling its share from 2016 after harnessing voter anger at homelessness, soaring rents and fraying public services. Turnout was 62.9%, down from 65.2% in the 2016 election.
The Greens won 12 seats, three small leftwing parties took 17 and independents took 21, on paper enough for a majority. But some, including the Labour party with six seats, are reluctant to enter government with Sinn Féin.
The announcement of full results on Tuesday confirmed a realignment of Irish politics. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, centrist rivals that took turns ruling Ireland for a century, lagged Sinn Féin in first-preference votes and respectively took 38 and 35 seats, among their worst results.
Fine Gael, after nine years in office, is expected to go into opposition, raising a question mark over the continued party leadership of Leo Varadkar, the outgoing taoiseach. He has ruled out a pact with Sinn Féin.
During the election, Fianna Fáil’s leader, Micheál Martin, also ruled out governing with Sinn Féin, which was the IRA’s political wing during the Troubles. Since the results, however, Martin has left open the possibility of a pact with Sinn Féin or Fine Gael.
McDonald, in a tacit admission that her path to power may require Martin’s party, said: “I welcome the fact that Fianna Fáil have shifted their position about talking to Sinn Féin and understand that this election has changed everything.”
Fianna Fáil is deeply split. Many TDs think a centrist alliance with Fine Gael would ignore voters’ desire for change and doom both parties at the next election. Others resist a deal with Sinn Féin because of the party’s past and leftwing economic agenda. Some favour going into opposition.
Negotiations are expected to take weeks, possibly months, and could end in deadlock and another election.
Bread-and-butter topics dominated the campaign, which virtually ignored the issues of Northern Ireland and Brexit, but Sinn Féin said it wished to promote its defining goal – a united Ireland – in any future government.
In a victory speech in Waterford, a Sinn Féin TD, David Cullinane, caused controversy by shouting “Up the ‘Ra”, a pro-IRA exhortation. It was a reference to the past, not the future, he later said.
The prospect of Sinn Féin in power in Dublin has jolted Northern Ireland’s unionists. Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, said both sides of the border were being “blighted” by Sinn Féin growth.
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister and the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, rejected McDonald’s call for a border poll on Irish unity and said the secretary of state could call such a poll in Northern Ireland only if a majority for unification appeared likely.
“No such circumstances exist in Northern Ireland,” she tweeted.