Leo Varadkar to resign tonight – but nobody is elected to replace him as Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar to resign tonight – but nobody is elected to replace him as Taoiseach

20/02 - 14:22 - All change at Leinster House for new and re-elected deputies

THE new Dáil has met for the first time since a seismic general election result delivered a new and fractured political landscape.

Despite several hours of speeches and four separate votes, no Taoiseach has been elected - although for the first time ever a woman and a Sinn Féin candidate has secured more votes than any other contender for the job. But Mary Lou McDonald fell short in her first bid to lead the next government.

Tonight, Leo Varadkar is formally resigning as Taoiseach but will remain on as caretaker until the parties can cobble together a government - and that may take some time.

Here are five things we learned on day one of the 33rd Dáil.

Mary Lou in the lead - but with borrowed socialist votes

The Sinn Féin leader got 45 votes for Taoiseach but with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil opposing her nomination, she was soundly beaten.

She secured the backing of left-wing TDs in RISE, Solidarity, People Before Profit and Independents4Change. But there were significant caveats outlined in their respective Dáil speeches.

In stark terms, RISE TD Paul Murphy said: "If you go into government with Fianna Fáil it will represent a betrayal of your voters."

Ms McDonald said earlier she hopes it does not take until April to get a government but Sinn Féin faces an uphill battle and will lose the support it gained from left-wing TDs today if it sits down with Fianna Fáil in the coming weeks.

Meet the new Dáil boss (same as the old boss)

To no great surprise, Seán Ó Fearghaíl was re-elected Ceann Comhairle. He is the first Dáil chairman to serve consecutive terms since Tipperary Independent Seán Treacy in the 1990s.

Although it is a secret ballot, his re-election was a fait accompli with Fine Gael and Sinn Féin keen to pare back Fianna Fáil’s Dáil numbers and Micheál Martin encouraging his own ranks to back their man. It was a landslide 130-28 victory for Mr Ó Fearghaíl with two spoiled ballots.

Independent TD Denis Naughten contested the election and made a compelling pitch, promising to bolster the power of Dáil deputies to hold bodies like the HSE to account and tackle the growing prevalence of state agencies to hide behind GDPR.

Mr Ó Fearghaíl’s pitch involved listing many of the reforms he has championed and to “serve the members rather than be a slave to the system”.

His election was widely-welcomed with Green Party leader Eamon Ryan describing him as a "superb" Ceann Comhairle in the last Dáil.

Independent TDs make their mark

It wasn’t the traffic-stopping event of 2016 but the Healy-Raes made a loud entrance to the Dáil with Kerry TDs Danny, Michael and a horde of their supporters landing outside Leinster House before midday.

Danny and daughters Maura and Elaine provided the soundtrack with two accordions and a tin whistle while supporters gave a rousing rendition of the 'Rose of Tralee'. Danny Healy-Rae finished with a rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann.

Another Independent who caught the eye was new Limerick County TD Richard O’Donoghue who arrived at Leinster House in a borrowed 1959 Plymouth car that he claimed was used in the convoy for John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963. Mr O’Donoghue declared: "I'm here to protect rural Ireland.”

Other Independents including former Labour TD Michael McNamara, former Fine Gael candidate Verona Murphy and former Army Ranger Cathal Berry, who were all elected to the Dáil last week, made more low-key entrances.

A very different seating plan

The scale of Fine Gael’s losses in the general election was evident from the moment the 33rd Dáil began with the party unable to fill the back row of the government side of the house. Minister Richard Bruton and veteran backbencher Bernard Durkan sat alone in the back row and several empty seats away from a couple of Independents.

With just 35 Fine Gael TDs elected to this Dáil, even Peter Fitzpatrick was able to squeeze in beside his former party colleague Martin Heydon.

Later Denis Naughten was sat among the Fine Gael ranks with one minister speculating that both he and Fitzpatrick could be tapped for a return to the Fine Gael fold in the weeks ahead.

Elsewhere, Sinn Féin’s seismic election victory was evident from their occupation of an entire wing of the Dáil chamber with four TDs spilling over into seats formerly occupied by Fine Gael.

Over on the main opposition benches, Fianna Fáil found themselves boxed in between the Socialists on their right and the new and old Independent TDs on their left. Meanwhile, Labour leadership rivals Alan Kelly and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin sat beside each other for much of the day but didn’t appear to be exchanging much small talk.

Micheál Martin scrambles for 'terra firma'

The embattled Fianna Fáil leader arrived to the plinth with his reduced parliamentary party to make the case that the electorate actually voted for centrist parties to form a government, and not necessarily a Sinn Féin-led left-wing administration. He said the parties “need to get back to terra firma, in terms of what this result means and in terms of the implications”.

Mr Martin may be coming under pressure internally, but he is now applying pressure to caretaker Taoiseach Leo Varadkar telling him that the Fine Gael needs to “engage” in government talks.

These appear to be the first tentative step towards discussions to form a grand coalition. There was a telling remark from Fianna Fáil TD Thomas Byrne later in the Dáil when he said: "We need a Taoiseach who will command a majority."

He hopes it can be Mr Martin in a few weeks' time and if Sinn Féin is still being ruled out then that majority government can only happen with Fine Gael.

Crucially Mr Martin secured 41 votes for Taoiseach, five more than Mr Varadkar, which puts him in pole position as an alternative to Ms McDonald.

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