Sinn Féin set for unprecedented gains in Irish election

Irish election Sinn Fein ahead in new poll

Prime Minister Varadkar's job in jeopardy as Sinn Fein rises in national polls

Ruling Fine Gael party, led by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, has won 22.4 percent of the vote, while opposition Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail parties have got 22.3 percent and 22.2 percent respectively.

"Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have ruled out coalition with Sinn Fein but will face major pressure now to row back from that", Evershed told The Associated Press.

"We just need a change in Ireland, it's very obvious", said Eilis Wall, a 40-year-old preschool owner who traveled 200 kilometers (125 miles) to Dublin from western Clare County on Wednesday to join thousands of care workers Children asking for better state funding.

In a result symbolic of the surge, the first seat declared shortly after 4pm was Sinn Fein's Donnchadh O Laoghaire, who topped the poll ahead of Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin.

An exit poll has indicated an extraordinary statistical dead heat between Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail - with the three within a percentage point of each other.

While Sinn Fein's main historical mission has been to reunite the two parts of the island of Ireland, it has morphed into a broader left of centre party, with a particular focus on housing.

Voters make their decision at a polling station in North Dublin on Feb 8.

Counting is getting under way across the country as ballot boxes are opened. "She gets it", said Geraldine Travers, a 56-year-old lifelong Fianna Fail voter who is switching to Sinn Fein this time and was among the crowd.

It is still unclear how many seats each party would have in Ireland's 160-seat parliament, known as the Dail, because the country uses a proportional representation system known as the single transferable vote.

The outcome of those talks was crucial to Ireland, the only European Union country to share a land border with the UK.

"Housing and health and the impact of the cost of living on people have been the dominant issues of this campaign".

There were conflicting reports by early Saturday evening, with many areas reporting a brisk voting pace through the day - but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar claiming the numbers going to the polls were actually low.

Sinn Fein was mired in controversy in the past week over what senior party members knew about a murder allegedly committed by the IRA in 2007.

Mr Quinn's parents Breege and Stephen have said Mr Murphy's apology did not go far enough and have called on him to explicitly state that their son was not a criminal.

'It was what we honestly believed and for us coalition with Sinn Fein is not an option but we are willing to talk to other parties about the possibility of forming a Government, one that can lead the country forward for the next five years'.

But Sinn Fein's historic role as the political wing of the IRA continue to haunt the party.

During Tuesday night's RTÉ Prime Time leaders' debate, the taoiseach and Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald clashed over the Republic's housing crisis. That's not something an Irish government could deliver without the support of Britain and Northern Ireland - highly unlikely in the short term.

But Brexit looks likely to nudge Northern Ireland's economy closer to that of its southern neighbour, and could yet increase pressure for a poll on unification.

Fianna Fail is expected to win the most seats but only sightly more than Fine Gael and Sinn Fein, which fielded fewer candidates. The majority of representatives will have been elected by Monday; however, some counts could drag on into next week.

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