Counting starts in Irish election as exit poll shows dead heat between three parties

DUBLIN, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 04: (L-R) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein...

DUBLIN, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 04: (L-R) Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald participate during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios on February 4, 2020 in Donnybrook, Dublin, Ireland. The Irish general election will take place on February 8. (Photo by Niall Carson - Pool/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Counting has started following Ireland's general election after an exit poll indicated a statistical dead heat between Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail.

The indications suggest that three parties are within a percentage point of each other - with Fine Gael on 22.4%, Sinn Fein on 22.3% and Fianna Fail on 22.2%.

If borne out, these results would represent a dramatic breakthrough for Sinn Fein south of the Irish border - challenging the 90-year duopoly of the Republic's two main parties.

The odds would still be stacked against Mary Lou McDonald leading the next government as taoiseach since Sinn Fein only fielded 42 candidates in the race for the Dail parliament's 160 seats.

None of the three parties are expected to reach the 80-seat threshold to enable it to govern on its own, and a coalition administration of some complexion is almost inevitable.

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Brexit did not feature prominently in the election campaign which was instead dominated by domestic issues like spiralling rental prices, record-breaking homeless numbers, controversy over the state pension age and a struggling health service.

There appears to be a mood for change, and the exit poll also suggested that Sinn Fein attracted support from younger voters who want to end Fine Gael's nine years in power - but are unwilling to trust Fianna Fail again after the financial crash that tarnished its last term of office.

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Meanwhile, the Green Party has been forecast to take 7.9%, Labour 4.6%, the Social Democrats 3.4% and Solidarity/People Before Profit 2.8%.

Negotiations to form a coalition government are likely to be complex with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail previously stating they would not enter an agreement with Sinn Fein.

Following the last Irish election in 2016, negotiations to form the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition took 70 days.

The exit poll, carried out by the Irish Times' pollsters Ipsos MRBI, was commissioned jointly by The Irish Times, RTE, TG4 and UCD.

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