Europe

Fine Gael 'big winners' of the Irish election

Enda Kenny and supporters
Image caption Enda Kenny is set to be the next Irish prime minister

The big winners of the election are undoubtedly Fine Gael.

Although they did not quite reach the stratospheric heights predicted by some pre-election polls, not only will they be the biggest party in the Dail for the first time since the early 1930s, they will be by far the biggest party in Leinster House.

They are likely to finish a few seats short of the position where they could credibly form a minority administration with the support of independents, but nonetheless they will be in a commanding position to drive the political agenda in a challenging time for the Republic.

Enda Kenny capped an excellent Fine Gael performance by seeing four TDs out of five in his Mayo constituency come from his own party.

Their likely coalition partners are the election's other big winners, Labour, who seem to have polled their best result ever and will likely have something over 30 members of parliament by the time counting concludes, with a particularly strong showing in the capital.

However, with the number of independent and minor party candidates elected likely to end up in the high teens, could Fine Gael do a deal with a group of sympathetic TDs, as right-leaning independent TD Shane Ross has suggested?

It is possible, but it would be difficult. Five of those independent or minor party TDs were elected on the banner of the United Left Alliance, and would be unlikely to support a government committed to further restraint in public spending.

A further six TDs, while elected as genuine independents, lie pretty clearly on the left of the ideological spectrum.

If every one of the remaining independents supported a Fine Gael single-party government, it would have a bare majority, but it would make for fraught governance at a time of genuine crisis, with further complex financial negotiations with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund likely.

So it is likely that Fine Gael and Labour, the two largest parties in the state will form a government together, one with a crushing overall majority. Despite different ideological backgrounds, the two parties have been natural partners in government since the foundation of the Irish state.

But with both parties coming off the back of historic election victories, both will push to see as much of their agenda as possible delivered. And there are real differences between them, particularly over the level of restraint needed in public spending.

Expect coalition negotiations to be tough, as Labour will also feel their performance deserves to see much of their agenda driven forward.

For Fianna Fail, the election has been a bruising one, with two-thirds of 2007 voters deserting the party and dozens of TDs losing their seats.

Fianna Fail, for long one of the most successful political parties in Europe, have been reduced to a humiliating third place.

While some heavy hitters like Brian Lenihan Jr and Willie O'Dea have survived to help rebuild, they will have to ask themselves difficult questions as to what Fianna Fail's core purpose is with Civil War politics dead and peace seemingly secure in Northern Ireland.

The contrast with Sinn Fein could hardly be greater.

After the disappointment of 2007, Sinn Fein's all-Ireland project is back on track.

Gerry Adams capped a strong party performance with a personal triumph as he topped the poll in Louth, while a bevy of young TDs, whose political education has been entirely within the Republic, will join him in Leinster House.

They seem set to be the strongest opposition voice on the left in the 31st Dail.

The Green Party is set for absolute wipeout in a devastating defeat, with even Green TDs who have been openly sceptical of its coalition with Fianna Fail, being deserted by voters.

In contrast, well over a dozen independents and TDs from smaller parties will to enter the Dail, including a number of articulate voices on the far left, such as the Socialist Party's Joe Higgins and People Before Profit's Richard Boyd Barrett.

But the biggest triumph for any independent candidate came from the political right, with Senator Shane Ross polling the highest vote in the state among the leafy suburban lanes of Dublin South.