Ireland’s two main political parties are coming under intense pressure to forge an unprecedented alliance as confusion reigns over the possibility of a new government.
A seismic split in the general election vote has thrust bitter enemies Fine Gael and Fianna Fail into a bout of soul-searching as to whether they can come together to restore stability to the country.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny is to meet with his party leadership while Fianna Fail chief Micheal Martin will open talks this week with his own stalwarts about the way forward.
Fractures have already opened within both parties, civil war-era adversaries who have swapped power for decades, about a widely-forecast “grand coalition”.
Fine Gael looks set to be the largest party despite suffering humiliating losses after five years in power implementing austerity, taking a narrow lead over arch-rivals Fianna Fail.
Outgoing junior coalition partners Labour have taken a drubbing with a number of its ministers being ejected, although party leader Joan Burton and deputy leader Alan Kelly won fights to retain their seats.
Ms Burton said she did not see her party in the next government.
Sinn Fein is on course to further increase its vote south of the Irish border.
With a large section of the electorate backing smaller parties and independents, the make-up of a new government remains in doubt, if an administration can be formed at all.
Among the battered coalition’s biggest casualties were Fine Gael’s deputy leader and former health minister James Reilly, the party’s former justice minister Alan Shatter and Labour’s communications minister Alan White.
Such is the uncertainty, senior political figures have talked openly about a new political system, citing continental European-style consensual arrangements or even a power-sharing executive similar to Northern Ireland.
After retaining his seat, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams ruled out propping up one of the traditionally dominant parties in coalition.
He said he would not “betray our electorate and betray the other people who need a progressive government.”
“We are not going to go in and prop up a regressive and negative old conservative government, whatever the particular party political complexion,” Mr Adams said.
Sinn Fein’s rejection of what would be a left-right coalition maintains the position his party adopted during the lacklustre election campaign.
Mr Kenny has ruled out resigning or re-running the poll.
The outgoing premier said his party would remain a large bloc in the new Dail despite throwing away the largest majority it had ever secured.
“I’d like to think that it could be possible, given the final results, to be able to put a government together that could work through the many challenges we have,” he said.
The clearest majority would come from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail setting aside their historical rivalries, borne out of the civil war and cemented over the last 90 years.
But several key figures from both parties have already hinted a split within their own ranks if an alliance is formed.
Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery maintains an historic coming together of the ancestral adversaries remains a “fairly major option”.
“If it is to be rejected, it would have to be for very cogent, clear and precise reasons,” he said.
Mr Flannery, credited with the revival of Fine Gael during the noughties, conceded very large numbers within both parties would be extraordinarily nervous about an alliance.
“It would fly in the face of 100 years of parliamentary practice – long established cultures and traditions,” he said.
But he added the enmity was more cultural than policy-driven.
“A lot of people, maybe including myself, would think change is for the good, bring us into a more modern type of politics,” he said.
Parties will have until March 10 – when the Dail is scheduled to resume – to forge a power-sharing deal.