Varadkar prepares to go into opposition as deadlock continues

Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent
Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Reuters

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach, has said he is prepared to lead his ruling Fine Gael party into opposition and to let Sinn Féin and other parties try to form a government.

Varadkar emerged from a six-hour meeting with Fine Gael’s parliamentary party on Monday night saying he “relishes” the chance to rebuild it from the opposition benches.

After almost a decade in power Fine Gael slumped in Ireland’s 8 February general election, winning just 35 seats and trailing Sinn Féin, which won 37 seats and the popular vote, and Fianna Fáil, which won 38 seats.

However, no party has a majority in the 160-seat Dáil Éireann, the lower house of parliament, and it is unclear whether anybody will manage to cobble together a coalition that could require alliances with small parties and independent TDs (MPs) with varying agendas.

The new parliament is due to meet on Thursday and will vote on nominees for a taoiseach. If no one wins a majority, as expected, Varadkar’s administration will continue as caretaker until the stalemate is broken in talks that could last weeks, possibly months. The alternative is another election.

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s leader, reiterated her desire to lead smaller parties in a leftwing government. “We have been elected in very large numbers to be in government, even to lead the next government,” she said during a visit to a Dublin community centre.

She rejected suggestions of a pact between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, centrist rivals that have dominated Irish politics for a century. “The idea of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael being returned again for five years is unthinkable,” she said.

Related: ‘People have moved on’. But can Sinn Féin really shrug off the past?

However, Sinn Féin has admitted an alliance with small leftwing parties could not muster a majority, leaving it reliant on a deal with Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, to get across the line.

Parliamentary arithmetic and political disagreements entangle the emergence of a coalition with more than 80 seats. In recent days Varadkar and Martin have restated their refusal to enter into government with Sinn Féin, citing its IRA links and economic policies, fuelling speculation of an unprecedented coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They have similar policies but antipathy dating from Ireland’s 1922-23 civil war.

Fine Gael had hoped to win a third term after steering economic recovery and Brexit negotiations, but felt voters’ wrath over housing and healthcare problems. Many of its surviving TDs think opposition is the place to make a fresh start and to avert annihilation at the next election.

“Sinn Féin has an obligation to the people who voted for it to show whether or not it can honour the extraordinary promises they made,” a party statement said after the parliamentary meeting.

“If Sinn Féin fails in that challenge then the onus passes to Fianna Fáil to form a government with them, and/or with the Greens, Labour and Social Democrat parties and Independents.”

However, speaking before the meeting, Varadkar left the door open to Fine Gael clinging to power by joining a new coalition as a last resort “if we are needed”.

Varadkar and Martin were due to talk later this week, a tentative start to negotiations that could last weeks or even months.

Shane Ross, an independent politician who served as transport minister under Varadkar, predicted an eventual coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens.

“People don’t say what they mean in these situations; what they do is position themselves for a final result,” he told Newstalk radio. Varadkar and Martin would edge towards agreement, he said. “They’ll both say they’re doing it incredibly reluctantly.”