Historic deals contemplated as Ireland ousts coalition

AFP , Sunday 28 Feb 2016

Enda Kenny
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny pauses before speaking to media at the general election count centre in Castlebar, Ireland February 27, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS)

Ireland awaited the final results Sunday of an election that ousted Prime Minister Enda Kenny's coalition but left no clear winner, raising the previously unthinkable possibility of an alliance with his oldest rivals.

With over half of the results in, voters had clearly punished Kenny's Fine Gael and its junior partner Labour in a swing to anti-austerity groups and anti-establishment candidates that echoed recent elections in other eurozone countries like Spain and Greece.

"Democracy can be very exciting but it's merciless when it kicks in. So this is a disappointment for the Fine Gael party," Kenny told RTE television late Saturday after he was re-elected in his rural constituency of Mayo.

"Clearly the government of Fine Gael and Labour are not going to be returned to office."

Irish newspapers heralded the election as a "rebellion" and an "earthquake" that had transformed the political landscape.

Some commentators said the only clear option for government was a previously unthinkable alliance between Fine Gael and its old rival Fianna Fail, which has bounced back following its electoral drubbing five years ago.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which have taken turns ruling Ireland since 1932, were on course to have similar numbers of seats and a majority between them in the 158-seat Dail.

But despite political similarities, they have deep divisions dating back to their roots on opposite sides in Ireland's civil war in the early 1920s.

In the Irish Independent, columnist Brendan O'Connor called it a "true democratic revolution".

"The best guess anyone can make today is that the establishment are going to have to hold their noses, circle the wagons and huddle together to create a government, to keep the barbarians from the gate," he wrote.

Party leaders said they were willing to consider all options and urged patience until all the results were in.

But analysts warned that there would be significant obstacles to such a deal and that a re-run of the vote was possible.

"I think the prospect of another election very soon is now very, very high," said Mark Mortell, a senior Fine Gael strategist.

Kenny faced anger among his party over the result and was asked by reporters if he would resign.

"I have a duty and responsibility as Taoiseach (prime minister) to do everything possible and as head of government to see that our country is provided with a stable government," he replied.

An alliance between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would make Sinn Fein the main opposition party in Ireland, a coup for the party once seen as the political voice of the Irish Republican Army.

It has capitalised on anger over austerity and was set to add as many as 10 seats to its previous count of 14.

"We're into a new era, we have seen in this election a seismic change," Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said after he was re-elected in his County Louth constituency, close to the border with Northern Ireland.

Negotiating parties will be mindful of the date of March 10, when the newly-elected representatives are due to meet in the lower house of parliament Dail Eireann and, in theory, appoint a Taoiseach, or prime minister.

Ireland exited a bailout programme in 2013 and has become the fastest growing country in the eurozone in recent years, with predicted GDP growth of 4.5 percent in 2016.

Kenny had asked voters to return the coalition to "keep the recovery going" in the country of 4.6 million people.

But rivals said that many people had yet to feel any improvement amid a housing crisis and the continued effects of years of spending cuts and tax hikes.

Junior coalition partner Labour took the brunt of voter anger after it was seen to have betrayed its centre-left voting base.

Senior figures to lose their seats included outgoing Labour minister Alex White and Fine Gael's Alan Shatter, a former justice minister.

"They weren't listening to the people, it's as simple as that," said Susan O'Brien, a horticulture worker in her early 40s.

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