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Tuesday March 31st, 2020 5:47AM

Top 3 parties in dead heat after Irish parliament elections

By The Associated Press
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DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland’s three biggest political parties are likely to face a difficult process of forming a new government, with an exit poll suggesting they finished in a virtual dead heat in parliamentary elections Saturday.

The survey conducted for national broadcaster RTE, the Irish Times, TG4 television and University College Dublin by pollster Ipsos MRBI said the Fine Gael party of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein all got about 22% of first preference votes.

The exit poll was based on 5,376 interviews conducted immediately after people voted at 250 polling stations. It has a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage point.

Vote counting starts Sunday, and it could be Monday before the election's results are determined.

With none of the three main parties likely to gain enough seats to govern alone, a coalition of some kind was almost inevitable.

But Sinn Fein was in a slightly weaker position than its two main rivals, because it fielded only 42 candidates for the 159 seats available and might be unable to find enough like-minded left-leaning allies to form a workable government.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail — the two parties that have dominated Irish politics since independence — have shunned Sinn Fein because of its links to the IRA.

While Sinn Fein is a major force in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom region where it is part of the power-sharing government that helped end decades of sectarian violence, it has long been a minor player south of the border in the Irish Republic. But the party has attracted voters with left-wing proposals for tackling Ireland's housing crisis and bolstering the nation's creaking health-care system.

Support for the traditionally dominant parties has fallen since the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Ireland's debt-fueled "Celtic Tiger” economy particularly hard. Ireland was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy and forced to seek a humiliating international bailout that was followed by years of austerity.

“I do think there is need to change,’’ Noleen Kelly, who works in the public sector, said outside a Dublin polling station. “So, I’m looking forward to see something positive.’’

Varadkar, the country’s first openly gay leader, became Taoiseach — prime minister — in 2017 after the resignation of his predecessor. His party has governed Ireland since 2011, first in coalition with the smaller Labour Party and since 2016 as the leader of a minority administration with the tacit support of Fianna Fail.

The election campaign was dominated by domestic problems, especially a growing homelessness crisis, house prices that have risen faster than incomes and a public health system that hasn't kept up with demand.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail said they would build more houses, ease hospital overcrowding and cut waiting times for medical treatment. Sinn Fein offered a more radical plan to raise taxes on the wealthy, freeze rents, build tens of thousands of new homes and lower the state pension age.

The focus on domestic issues overshadowed Varadkar's greatest success: protecting Irish interests during negotiations over Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Varadkar was the face of Ireland during the talks, which were crucial to Ireland because it is the only EU country that shares a land border with the U.K. While most people applaud his success in securing guarantees that people and goods will continue to flow freely between Ireland and the north, the prime minister had difficulty persuading voters that he needed another term in office to cement those gains in the next round of talks with Britain.

Recent opinion polls had indicated Sinn Fein was gaining ground, prompting the larger parties to remind voters of the party’s ties to past violence.

Sinn Fein’s links with the IRA, which disarmed after the 1998 peace accord in Northern Ireland, became an issue late in the election. The mother of a Northern Ireland man who was beaten to death in 2007 — a killing the family blames on the IRA — accused party members of slandering her son as a criminal and failing to reveal what they knew about his death.

Fianna Fail’s leader, Micheal Martin, said Sinn Fein was not fit to govern because “they have not cleansed themselves of their bloody past.”

Sinn Fein denied that Irish republicans were involved in the killing, but the party was put on the defensive.

Party leader Mary Lou McDonald condemned the slaying as "barbaric." McDonald, a Dubliner, has helped Sinn Fein shed its hard-line image since replacing Gerry Adams, a Belfast native who led the party from 1983 to 2018.

Sinn Fein’s struggle for a united Ireland was on the back burner during the election, but the party is calling for a referendum on reunification within five years.

That is not something an Irish government could deliver without the support of Britain and Northern Ireland — highly unlikely in the short term. But Brexit looks likely to nudge Northern Ireland’s economy closer to that of its southern neighbor, and could increase pressure for a vote on unification.

___

Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless contributed.

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