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Sinn Fein finds its voice in Ireland after vote gains

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Dublin (AFP)

Republican party Sinn Fein on Monday stood on the threshold of a potential role in Ireland's government after winning the popular vote in a weekend election, a result shattering the political landscape.

The result from Saturday's ballot broke the stranglehold of two-party politics in Ireland, opening up a potential role for a party once shunned because of its links to IRA paramilitaries.

Former leader Gerry Adams and other party representatives were even banned from the airwaves in the UK as violence raged over British rule in Northern Ireland over three decades to 1998.

But with two decades of peace and a new leader under Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein's left-wing policies on tackling crises in housing and health found favour with voters.

McDonald said the two main parties -- Fine Gael and Fianna Fail -- were "in a state of denial" and had not listened to the voice of the people.

"I will talk to and listen to everybody," she said on Sunday night.

Prime Minister and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar acknowledged the shift, and raised the prospect of protracted negotiations between the parties.

"It seems that we have now a three-party system. That is going to make forming a government quite difficult," he said.

After ballots in all 39 constituencies were tallied on Sunday, Sinn Fein received 24.5 percent of first preferences in Ireland's single transferable vote system.

That outstripped the opposition Fianna Fail party on 22.2 percent and its centre-right rivals Fine Gael on 20.9 percent.

"The Irish political system has to react to it and probably accept that Sinn Fein will be part of the next government," Eoin O'Malley, associate professor at Dublin City University, told AFP.

- Young appeal -

At 1000 GMT on Monday, state broadcaster RTE reported 78 of the 159 seats in the Dail -- Ireland's lower house of parliament -- were filled.

Sinn Fein, whose flagship policy is uniting the republic with Northern Ireland, had 29.

But because it ran just 42 candidates, even a strong performance in the popular vote may not result in it becoming the biggest party in the next parliament.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have both ruled out any deal with Sinn Fein because of its past associations under Adams, who has long denied allegations he had a leadership role in the IRA.

"The Troubles" saw the IRA wage a campaign against unionist counterparts and British security forces over UK-rule in Northern Ireland that saw more than 3,000 killed on all sides.

McDonald's policies on tackling wealth inequality and housing shortages appear to have appealed to younger voters in the EU member state's 3.3 million-strong electorate.

Some 32 percent of voters aged 18-24 and 25-34 backed the party, according to an exit poll on Saturday.

Dublin coffee shop manager Darren Hart said it was time for another party to try after decades of two-party dominance.

"Whether they have a troubled past as a party or not, you know they deserve a shot same as everybody else, so why not?" he said.

Fiach Kelly, deputy political editor of The Irish Times, called McDonald "the star of the campaign" and said her attacks on Fianna Fail's support for Fine Gael's minority government were "brutally effective".

"It robbed (Fianna Fail leader) Micheal Martin of his claim to be an agent of change and solidified Sinn Fein as the party offering radical change," he wrote.

- Talks start -

McDonald said she had begun talks with smaller left-wing parties to try to "test" whether it was possible to form a government without the two main centre-right parties.

In a sign of the sea-change in Irish politics, Varadkar himself was beaten to the first seat in his constituency by a Sinn Fein candidate.

He took the second of four seats but it was a sharp symbolic blow on a long night for the premier, who was facing the electorate for the first time as prime minister.

Varadkar -- young, openly gay and mixed-race -- has been seen as the face of a new, more progressive Ireland after referendums overturning strict abortion laws and same-sex marriage.

O'Malley predicted Sinn Fein would possibly mount a strong campaign for McDonald to serve as prime minister when the new Dail convenes on February 20.

But he predicted a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition as the most likely future government to be formed some time in early March. Martin seemed to soften his stance against that prospect on Sunday.

"Undercover there will be probably talks between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail," said O'Malley.

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