Sinn Fein thrust into mainstream

World | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 12 Feb 2020

Sinn Fein yesterday became Ireland's second- largest parliamentary party after winning the popular vote, shattering the political landscape and thrusting the one-time fringe party with historic links to paramilitaries into a likely role in the next government.

With counting completed in the early hours yesterday, Sinn Fein had taken 37 of the 160 seats in the next Dail - Ireland's lower house of parliament - after a 62.9 percent turnout in Saturday's election.

The center-right Fianna Fail were only one ahead on 38, while Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael party took 35.

If a new government is to be formed when the Dail sits on February 20, it must contain multiple parties.

Saturday's ballot has broken the stranglehold of two-party politics in Ireland by introducing a new contender in the mainstream - the nationalist Sinn Fein party once shunned because of its links to the Irish Republican Army paramilitaries.

But with two decades of peace and a new leader, under Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein's left-wing policies on tackling crises in housing and health found favor with voters.

McDonald said the two main parties - Fine Gael and Fianna Fail - were "in a state of denial" and had not listened to the people.

On Monday, she said she had begun talks with smaller left-wing parties to try to "test" whether it was possible to form a government without the two center-right parties.

"I may well be the next taoiseach (prime minister)," she said.

Prime Minister and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar acknowledged the shift to "a three-party system" on Sunday and said talks between the parties could be protracted and difficult.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have both ruled out any deal with Sinn Fein because of its past associations under former leader Gerry Adams, who has long denied allegations he had a leadership role in the IRA.

In a sign of the sea-change in Irish politics, Varadkar himself was beaten to the first seat in his constituency by a Sinn Fein candidate on Sunday.

He took the second of four seats, but it was a sharp symbolic blow for the premier, who was facing the electorate for the first time as prime minister.

Varadkar - young, openly gay and mixed-race - has been seen as the face of a new, more progressive Ireland after referendums overturning strict abortion laws and same-sex marriage.

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