ANALYSIS: What do the results mean for the next General Election?
By Mary Regan, Irish Examiner Political Editor
The votes are still being counted, but attention is already shifting to whether this weekend's Local and European Elections mark a breaking of the mould in Irish politics, or merely a mid-term kicking for the Government.
None of the established political parties have much to celebrate: Fine Gael is suffering a backlash, Labour is fighting for survival and Fianna Fáil is showing a steady - but hardly triumphant - comeback.
There has been a major shift towards Independent and anti-austerity candidates, while Sinn Féin are now in with a shout of being the biggest party in some councils around the country.
"Something profound has happened in the people's attitudes to politics," said deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald as the tallies came in.
But the big question is whether this marks a change in the party political order to followed through in the next general election, or is it just a blunt message to the Coalition that people have had enough.
Patterns have shown that voters are more likely to experiment with their mid-term vote and use it to make a statement - in this case, possibly, a rejection of the Troika-driven austerity programme or the "politics as usual" shown by the Coalition's broken promises.
But previous trends have also shown that local election results can be a good indicator of the make up of the next Dáil.
The Labour Party gained 43 council seats in 2009 leading to the "Gilmore Gale" in the 2011 general elections.
Similarly, Fianna Fáil lost 135 seats at the time - a sign of things to come in its Dáil representation.
This weekend's result not only give Sinn Féin a footprint in many parts of the country where they previously had little or no presence, they have also returned many candidates to local councils where they can be nurtured to grow into Dáil contestants.
The flip side for Sinn Fein is that the results will put a sharper focus on its economic policies, while also giving the public the chance to "try them out" by watching how they get on in local councils.
Minister Leo Varadkar put in in the stark terms when he said the next general election will be a choice between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin to lead the next Government.
Based on an analysis by Dr Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynoth on the RTÉ poll of polls in the campaign, which is somewhat similar to the exit poll results this morning, Fine Gael would have 45 Dáil seats after a General Election; Fianna Fáil would have 38; Sinn Féin would have 32, Labour would have just two and Independents and others would have 41.
This would present three options for forming a Government: A coalition of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, which is not going to happen; A coalition of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein with the support of nine or 10 independents, or - most realistically - a coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
In which case Leo Varadkar would be proven right. And this might give Fine Gael the opportunity to argue that the choice is between returning good old reliable them or giving power back to "the last lot" that got us into this mess supported by Sinn Féin and an incoherent bunch of others.
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