Big two Irish parties closely matched as Sinn Fein surge - poll

FILE PHOTO: The Leader of Ireland's opposition Fianna Fail party, Micheal Martin is seen in the grounds of Government Buildings in Dublin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's main opposition party, Fianna Fail, edged ahead of the governing Fine Gael in an opinion poll on Monday, a far more modest lead than a separate survey suggested a day earlier amid a pre election jump in support for third-placed Sinn Fein.

Fianna Fail surged into a surprising 12-point lead over Fine Gael in the Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll that was published on Sunday but almost entirely conducted before Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called the Feb. 8 election.

Polls conducted late last year suggested the two parties, which have broadly similar policies on the economy and Brexit, were closely matched and Monday's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll put Fianna Fail on 25% and Fine Gael on 23%.

While Fianna Fail was unchanged from the series' last poll in October, Fine Gael dropped six points. Satisfaction with the government also fell sharply to 27% from 42% while Varadkar's personal approval plummeted to 35% from 51% in October.

He was still, however, marginally the most popular leader.

Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), with whom both of the main parties refuse to govern, jumped seven points to 21%. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin reiterated again on Monday that it would not form a coalition.

The left wing Sinn Fein, which has tended to underperform its opinion poll numbers in previous elections, immediately repeated its call for the inclusion of leader Mary Lou McDonald in two planned televised debates between Varadkar and Martin.

The survey of 1,200 prospective voters in every constituency was conducted between Thursday and Saturday, the opening days of the campaign.

If Monday's survey translated into votes on polling day, Ireland would likely be heading for a second successive minority government, this time led by Fianna Fail but needing another "confidence and supply" deal with one of its two main rivals.

Under such a cooperation deal, Fine Gael has led a minority government since 2016 with a handful of independent lawmakers and the backing of fellow centre-right Fianna Fail from the opposition benches.

Prospective direct partners in a minority government, the Green Party and Labour, stood on 8% and 5% respectively in the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion. The Greens were also polling at 15% in Dublin, where the party is targetting a number of seats.


(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Daniel Wallis)