Acting premier Enda Kenny has accused his arch-rivals of a serious mistake in spurning his proposal for a ground-breaking coalition to free the country from political stalemate.
His Fine Gael party overwhelmingly backed moves towards a a “full partnership government” with ancient enemies Fianna Fail amid fears for the ongoing economic recovery.
The proposal would have ended more than 90 years of bitter civil-war era enmity between the pair to break a deadlock caused by an unprecedented voter split in February’s general election.
Both parties held meetings of their parliamentary members on Thursday on the prospect of a historic deal.
But after four hours of discussions with his own rank and file, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin delivered his rebuke in a frosty 10-minute meeting with caretaker Taoiseach Mr Kenny.
Afterwards, he insisted Fianna Fail had campaigned to put Fine Gael out of power.
“We made a core commitment to the Irish people, we reiterated it time and time again and we are not going back on it,” he said.
Mr Kenny hit back that Fianna Fail was acting in its own selfish interests.
“I believe that this decision is a serious mistake and one which was driven by narrow party interests rather than the national interest,” he said.
“Ireland needs a stable and lasting government to meet the many national and international challenges facing the country.
“Fine Gael’s preferred option of a full partnership is the best option for providing the necessary stability and it is very regrettable that Fianna Fail has rejected this historic opportunity.”
Voters now face the prospect of going back to the polls if a stable minority government cannot be formed within the coming weeks.
Fine Gael said the “partnership” offer remains on the table.
But with both sides trading insults on the choreography of the offer, or the haste with which it was turned down, it appears unlikely they will strike a deal any time soon.
Mr Martin said he would support a minority Fine Gael-led government from the Opposition benches, if he could not form one himself.
Concerns would remain over the stability of such an administration.
Bookmakers immediately slashed the odds on a second general election being held on the back of Fianna Fail’s refusal to enter a “grand coalition” with Fine Gael.
After its meeting, Fine Gael party secretary Helen McEntee said: “This is an historic offer, representing seismic change in the political landscape.
“I believe now more than ever we need to put the people first.”
Catherine Byrne, Fine Gael’s acting chairwoman, said a “partnership government” is the best way to assure stability.
“Fine Gael TDs and Senators overwhelmingly supported a partnership government, as the best way to provide a stable and lasting government to deal with the issues concerning people and the challenges facing the country,” she said.
However, a slew of senior Fianna Fail figures remained trenchant in their opposition to a partnership.
Niall Collins, the party’s justice spokesman, said it had sought votes on the basis that it would not support Fine Gael in power.
“I think to roll over now to enter a grand partnership or coalition with Fine Gael would be a betrayal of that,” he said.
John McGuinness was one of the few high-profile Fianna Fail figures to publicly back the idea.
“I have no problem with a partnership government that gives 50-50 to everyone involved,” he said.
Willie O’Dea, a former Fianna Fail minister, campaigned on the basis of not supporting a Fine Gael minority government.
“The people of this country voted to get rid of the outgoing government; they voted to get rid of Enda Kenny as taoiseach,” he said.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said Fine Gael and Fianna Fail had engaged in six weeks of play acting.
“It was always clear from the election results that the only real option was for the two conservative parties to form a government,” he said.