Ireland’s mainstream political leaders have been left reeling after an electoral bloodbath plunged support for establishment parties to a near record low.
With prospects for a new coalition government in deep disarray, weeks of protracted negotiations are on the cards after Taoiseach Enda Kenny ruled out resigning or re-running the poll.
His Fine Gael party suffered a hammer blow, losing in the region of 30 seats, while its Labour Party partner was humiliated by the prospect of retaining fewer than 10 seats.
The fracturing of the Republic’s traditional centre-right politics suggested widespread disaffection with the once dominant forces and austerity – a mirror of the voter schism which has crippled parliaments in Spain, Portugal and Greece.
While the final result is not yet known, predictions point to a remarkable electoral swing where the political powerhouses of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will struggle to secure support of 50% of popular support for the first time in history.
Mr Kenny said his party would remain a large bloc in the new Dáil despite throwing away the largest majority it had ever secured.
“I’d like to think that it could be possible, given the final results, to be able to put a government together that could work through the many challenges we have,” he said.
Mr Kenny claimed his job as the outgoing Taoiseach was to ensure a stable government.
The clearest majority would come from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail setting aside their historical rivalries, borne out of the civil war and cemented over the last 90 odd years.
But Fianna Fáil’s Micheal Martin insisted the focus was not entirely on ending the animosity between the parties which permeates parishes and families up and down the country.
“We have made it clear we do not want to go into government with Fine Gael or with Sinn Féin,” he said.
“The idea that it is just down to two parties, I think, is ignoring the reality of how people voted.”
Sinn Féin will be the third largest party.
Under its president Gerry Adams, who topped the poll in Louth, the party looks set to continue its march south of the border with an expected increase in its vote and its presence in the Dail parliament by around 50%.
Among the decimated coalition’s biggest casualties were Alex White, Labour’s outgoing minister for communications, energy and natural resources, and Alan Shatter, the former Fine Gael justice minister, who were both defeated in Dublin Rathdown.
Catherine Martin took a seat in the constituency for the Greens, returning the party to the Dail for their first seat since the collapse of 2011.
But Labour leader Joan Burton said she was not resigning, but neither would she be in government.
Mr Kenny refused to consider any of the permutations for a new coalition either with Fianna Fail, a rainbow or a minority arrangement, instead appealing for time for the final numbers to be confirmed.
Mr Adams said he had “divided thoughts” on a potential Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition.
“They are natural partners, they are Siamese twins who have been divided for some time – they should get into bed together,” he said. “That’s my positive attitude.
“My negative attitude to it is this would be a most conservative regime if they do come together.”
Other outgoing Labour ministers Jan O’Sullivan and Kathleen Lynch are also at risk of losing their seats in the electoral bloodbath but Tánaiste – deputy prime minister – and party leader Joan Burton scraped into the last seat in Dublin West.
In a remarkable comeback after its near wipeout at the last election, Fianna Fail could almost double its seats.
But the once-dominant party in Irish politics will remain a long way from its heyday majority, which tumbled with the economic crash it presided over nearly a decade ago.
The mounting disillusionment with mainstream parties opened an unprecedented opportunity for smaller parties and Independents to reap the rewards.
Mark Mortell, the Taoiseach’s closest adviser, said Ireland would have to review its “political system” once the outcome of its most uncertain election in recent times is decided.
“The only word I can use right now is deep disappointment,” he said.
One of the few possibilities for stable government, it appears, would be sworn enemies Fine Gael and Fianna Fail setting aside their near 90-year-old feud dating back to Ireland’s civil war.
The pair, both centre-right, have swapped power since the foundation of the state.
Such a “grand coalition” would also break new ground in potentially handing the Dail a definitive left-right split for the first time in history.
More than 550 candidates fought in 40 constituencies to become one of just 158 TDs – eight seats fewer than the 2011 election when Fine Gael and Labour took office promising a democratic revolution.
Parties will have until March 10 – when the Dáil is scheduled to resume – to forge a power-sharing deal.