Ireland elections: IRA-linked party at historic high in exit poll

Ireland's left-wing republican party Sinn Fein apparently topped the polls in the country's general election, winning 24.5% of the vote and beating centrist parties.

In a surprise outcome, Sinn Fein had 29 seats after the first day of counting Sunday. The result marked Sinn Fein's best performance ever in an Irish general election.

The victory could see the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) form a government in the Republic.

Opposition Fianna Fail had 22.2% of the vote and ruling Fine Gael gained 22.2% of the vote in Saturday's polls.

The Green Party received 7.1% of first preferences, with Labour on 4.4% and left-leaning Social Democrats on 2.9%.

Dead heat

The poll puts Sinn Fein in a dead heat with the two parties that traditionally dominate Irish politics: Fine Gael and the opposition Fianna Fail. The two established parties have ruled Ireland between the two for almost 100 years.

Ireland could be without a stable government for months if the country's three big political parties do not manage to form a coalition.

Read more: Irish election: A United Ireland, a Disunited Kingdom?

Forming a left-wing government

President of the Sinn Fein party, Mary Lou McDonald, said Monday her first priority is to form a government with fellow left-wing parties including the Greens and the Social Democrats.

"My first job of work... is to establish with other parties whether or not there are the numbers, whether there is the political will, to deliver a new government without Fianna Fail or Fine Gael," McDonald said in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE.

McDonald added that "of course" she would not rule out talks with Fianna Fail and Varadkar's Fine

Grand coalition 'not an option'

Frustration with economic austerity and an ongoing housing crisis have fueled the rise of Sinn Fein, which is committed to the reunification of Ireland and is still sidelined by the political establishment for its links to the IRA.

The IRA was an Irish republican paramilitary organization — classed as terrorist in the UK and illegal in the Republic of Ireland — that sought to end British rule in Northern Ireland and reunite the whole of Ireland into an independent republic.

Speaking to journalists on Sunday evening, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said, "For us, a coalition with Sinn Fein is not an option, but we are willing to talk to other parties."

First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, described the election results as a "huge change," according to Irish broadcaster RTE. The Democratic Unionist Party leader said homelessness and health were the key issues of the campaign and not Brexit, adding that the vote for Sinn Fein was a protest vote.

Foster said Northern Ireland would have to collaborate with whatever government was in place in Dublin.

Varadkar's party has been in government since 2011. He was a key negotiator for the EU in Brexit talks with the UK, Ireland being the only country with which the UK shares a land border.

Read more: Opinion: A sad song for Europe

Vote counting resumed on Monday, results are expected in the next few days.

ed,mvb/ng (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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