Micheál Martin has refused to rule out a historic coalition government with Sinn Féin as tallies showed Mary Lou McDonald’s party was on course to win the highest share of first preference votes.
Despite the Sinn Féin surge, Fianna Fáil was still likely to be the largest party in the 33rd Dáil. With most tallies completed, Martin’s party was set to take the second biggest share first preference votes and finish marginally ahead of Fine Gael.
Speaking to reporters at the Cork South-Central count centre, Martin said he did not want to “pre-empt anything” with regard to the potential make up of the next government.
“Our policies and our positions and principles haven't changed overnight, but what is important is that the country comes first, and after the last general election we did facilitate a functioning government and the formation of a functioning government,” he said.
“I think there is an onus and an obligation to ensure that such a functioning government is formed after this.”
Pressed on whether he would do a deal with Sinn Féin to form a coalition government, Martin said there were “significant incompatibilities” between the two parties in terms of policy.
Speaking shortly afterwards on RTÉ, he said he hoped a period of instability could be avoided and did not rule out joining forces with McDonald‘s party.
“We’ll let things calm down today, we'll assess it when the full count is in and the full number of seats are in. I'm a democrat, I listen to the people, I respect the decision of the people,” he said.
“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. And they’re very significant issues that can’t be glossed over in the euphoria of an election day,” he said.
Earlier this month, Martin reiterated his opposition to going into coalition with Sinn Féin.
"But be in no doubt - people have supported me in my message on [not going into coalition with] Sinn Féin and that is how it is going to pan out."
By mid-evening, Fianna Fáil’s hope-for gains across Dublin were in doubt, based on tally numbers.
In Dublin North-West, lord mayor Paul McAuliffe was in a battle with Conor Reddy of Solidarity-People Before Profit to take the third and final seat behind Dessie Ellis of Sinn Féin and Róisín Shorthall of the Social Democrats.
Sinn Féin’s rise in support was evident in Dublin Central, where Mary Lou McDonald topped the poll as expected and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe also looked safe.
Fianna Fáil’s Mary Fitzpatrick was battling to take the final seat but was at risk of being overtaken on transfers by Gary Gannon, the Social Democrat.
In Dublin South-West, John Lahart of Fianna Fáil was on course to retain his seat but the party’s hopes of gaining a second seat were looking remote, with Charlie O’Connor and Deirdre O’Donovan both trailing rivals on early tallies in the five-seat constituency.
Justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan was in a battle for the final seat in Dublin Bay South but seemed likely to hang on ahead of Fine Gael’s Kate O'Connell.
Lisa Chambers, the party’s Brexit spokeswoman, and Timmy Dooley, its former communications spokesman, were at risk of losing their seats.
Based on the tallies in Mayo, Sinn Féin Senator Rose Conway-Walsh and long-time Fine Gael Michael Ring were set to be elected. Dara Calleary,the deputy Fianna Fáil leader, was also expected to take a seat but Conway-Walsh’s rise left Chambers in danger of becoming one of the election’s most high-profile casualties.
Chambers was marginally ahead of Fine Gael candidates Michelle Mulherin and Alan Dillon but likely to suffer from transfers as the day went on.
Meanwhile in Clare, Dooley was in a similar position as Sinn Féin’s Violet-Anne Wynne’s likely but unexpected poll-topping performance left him in third position on the final tallies in the four-seater constituency, behind running mate Cathal Crowe, the Clare mayor contesting his first general election.
Earlier, John McGuinness was the first Fianna Fáil TD to break from the party line in suggesting it should drop its opposition to discussing a coalition with Sinn Féin.
“It's quite clear what the message from the electorate is that we must now speak to every party and indeed the independents to try and bring together a government that will stay in place for the next five years, and we have to take a message from this election, which essentially is to deal with the issues that people face every day,” he said on RTÉ’s Election 2020 programme.
Asked if he supported a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition, McGuinness said he was in favour of his party talking to McDonald’s and others to try to form a workable government.
“I believe that we need to talk to every party and none and that should start as soon as this election finishes,” he said.
Speaking on the same programme, Darragh O’Brien, the party’s housing spokesman, ruled out a coalition with Sinn Féin.