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article imageNew Irish parliament sits as government formation flounders

By Joe STENSON (AFP)     Feb 19, 2020 in World

Ireland's parliament resumes on Thursday for the first time since this month's general election, with no new government in place and the three biggest parties locked in coalition talks.

Lawmakers in the Dail, the country's lower chamber, are due to sit from 1200 GMT, with the 160 seats reflecting a new political balance after the February 8 vote.

A speaker will be elected before parties make nominations for taoiseach (prime minister) and debate the candidates.

Talks have not yet produced a workable scheme for government, meaning all nominees are expected to fall short of the votes required and the Dail will likely adjourn.

Fianna Fail is the largest party in the legislature with 38 seats, followed by Sinn Fein on 37 and Fine Gael led by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on 35.

Sinn Fein's unexpected surge in support broke the stranglehold of the two centre-right parties, and put them on the threshold of power for the first time.

The one-time fringe nationalists -- the former political wing of paramilitary group the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- won the popular vote in Ireland's single transferable vote system.

Its left-wing policies to address a housing and health crisis found favour but it is its flagship policy on Irish unity that is likely to be a key issue if it gets into power.

Sinn Fein is now the second-biggest party in the Irish Republic and in British-run Northern Ireland. It wants a referendum on sovereignty within five years.

The IRA fought British rule in Northern Ireland for decades until the late 1990s, when a peace agreement largely ended violence that left more than 3,000 dead on all sides.

Under the agreement, a referendum on sovereignty can be called if it appears a majority are in favour of union with Ireland.

- Power brokers -

With none of the three main parties having the 80 seats required for a majority, at least three parties will be needed to form a government.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have both ruled out working with the nationalists. As a result, Sinn Fein has sounded out smaller, left-leaning parties for the possibility of a broad alliance.

Chances of that happening look slim.

Varadkar, whose election campaign was launched on the back of his successful part in Brexit negotiations, told state broadcaster RTE on Monday he was prepared to go into opposition.

But RTE political correspondent Micheal Lehane said the premier seemed to be leaving an alliance with Fianna Fail open as a "last resort".

As the three main parties will not work together, the Green Party -- the fourth largest with 12 seats -- may become a power broker in the next government.

It has invited Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to meetings from Friday to sketch out a plan for the next administration.

"We are proposing these bilateral meetings to get clarity on points of agreement and difference with each party", leader Eamon Ryan said on Sunday.

"We hope the approach will make sure any future negotiations on government formation is based on proper policy analysis."

Negotiations may take some time and if they do not come to fruition a new general election may be called.

After the 2016 general election it took 70 days before a minority coalition government was formed under Fine Gael, supported in a confidence and supply agreement by Fianna Fail.

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