The opinion polls spelled doom for Fine Gael, yet Leo Varadkar’s party still stands a chance of ending up with the most seats.
Richard Bruton, the Communications Minister, told RTÉ News that Fine Gael had rallied in the final days of the election – and the tallies and exit poll appeared to be proof of that.
“No one would have said a week ago that we were going to finish as the largest party in an exit poll. It does show that within the past week the party has campaigned very well,” Bruton said.
“Leo Varadkar himself has put his cards out very well in the debates and I think that has influenced voters.”
Simon Harris, the Minister for Health, delivered the same message. Speaking to Virgin Media Television, he said people who made up their minds in the final days voted for Fine Gael, which he claimed was down to Varadkar’s interventions.
Harris added that despite the severe criticism of the party’s record in health and housing, the early tallies showed that a large number of voters still backed Fine Gael to solve these problems.
“When people say health and housing are major issues, it doesn’t mean they think the opposition are better at fixing it,” Harris said.
The party looks likely to make a gain in Dublin Rathdown, with tallies showing Senator Neale Richmond on course to take about 15.8 per cent of the vote – slightly ahead of Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan.
Although the early results may not be as bleak for Fine Gael as the opinion polls predicted, it has lost a lot of ground.
The party is expected to experience significant losses when the official counts start to come in. Tallies from Meath East showed Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty has about 10 per cent of the vote and is at risk of losing her seat.
Noel Rock, TD for Dublin North-West, said in some places it had been a good day for Fine Gael, but that it was very unlikely he would retain his seat.
“I’ll be the youngest former TD since 1987,” he told Virgin Media Television.
Government chief whip Seán Kyne had 8.8 per cent of the vote Galway West from the tallies, which left him behind the chasing pack.
Despite Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy’s Dublin Bay South seat being more secure than predicted early today, his constituency colleague Kate O’Connell is at risk of losing hers.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe is expected to scrape the final seat in Dublin Central. Varadkar finished second on first-preferences in Dublin West, behind Paul Donnelly of Sinn Féin.
Bruton told RTÉ News that the party had made a sluggish start in the campaign, but had ended strongly.
“I think we started in a very difficult week after the highlighting of homelessness with the poor man who was seriously injured on the canal, and hospital beds, but I think we rallied our campaign towards the end,” he said.
“I think Leo Varadkar very clearly got over his message that if we want a fair society, you also need a strong economy and delivering that strong economy can't just be taken for granted. I think that resonated with people and why we see Fine Gael emerging as the largest single party in the exit polls.”
Tom Curran, Fine Gael’s general secretary, said Sinn Féin had benefited from a protest vote and that it had best captured the demand for change.
“Eaten bread is soon forgotten,” he told RTÉ News. “It’s a great day for Sinn Féin and they need to be congratulated.”
He added that he expected a lot of the final seats to be filled by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil candidates, but it was too early to say what the final numbers would be.
Curran said Fine Gael and other parties would have to take stock, and that the party would be prepared to do business with Fianna Fáil.
Bruton was also looking further into future.
He said the next election would be “fought in a different climate”, but Fine Gael would still focus on the need to protect the economy.
“One of the things we’ve pointed out is that if you want a fair society and to invest in more public services, you need to sustain a strong economy. You could easily see in the coming weeks and months quite a jolt to our economic progress from Brexit going wrong,” he said.
“I think that message of a combination of a strong economy and fair society is one that we will continue to make because we feel the Sinn Féin policy is not good for the country and will damage the prosperity people are enjoying.”