One week to form government
Enda Kenny is facing a one-week deadline to form a new government after Fine Gael romped to an historic victory in the 2011 general election.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore steered his party to become the second biggest and threw down the gauntlet to Taoiseach-in-waiting Enda Kenny to strike a complex deal in seven days.
But there is also a possibility Fine Gael could secure a pact with a collection of like-minded independents focused on solving the banking and fiscal crisis.
Fine Gael's director of elections Phil Hogan said contacts will begin tomorrow,
"I expect that the leader of Fine Gael will be contacting Labour and will be contacting independents as well," he said.
"There seems to be a realisation that there are some important decisions coming up for the country in the context of EU matters."
Mr Kenny is to make the first contacts with potential partners by phone.
Fine Gael continued to make gains on the second day of counting while Fianna Fail suffered yet another high-profile casualty in the loss of tourism minister Mary Hanafin's seat.
Mr Gilmore said he had not been contacted by Fine Gael but said his party - now the second largest in the state - would be open to discussions.
"If Fine Gael want a government for a period of five years, strong, stable that brings together the two largest parties, in what will be the closest we're going to get in this country to essentially a national government, the Labour Party is willing to play its part in that," Mr Gilmore said.
"But I do say that the window of opportunity for that to happen is very narrow.
"I believe that a government needs to be formed on the first day the Dail is back which is March 9.
"So really there's about a week in which a programme for government can be put together."
Fine Gael faces difficult talks with Labour with the sides at odds over the length of time it will take to turn around the budget deficit, tax, public sector cuts, water charges and how to tackle bondholder responsibility for banking debts.
Labour also warned it has its own parliamentary party hoops to jump through if it wishes to enter government.
Depending on numbers, Mr Kenny could turn to the independents with the new Dail parliament home to a significant non-party bloc spearheaded by former Senator Shane Ross and developer Mick Wallace.
But thrashing out a coalition could prove difficult given the number of left-leaning independents, while former stockbroker Mr Ross is also demanding a referendum on the multibillion-euro bailout from the International Monetary Fund and Europe.
Mr Kenny has vowed not to waste any time pulling together a strong and stable government before moving to force Europe's hand on renegotiation of the €85bn EU/IMF loan deal - but has made no mention of a referendum.
The Mayo poll-topper, who secured the largest vote in the country, said he wanted a quick resolution to talks on a new government.
"We don't want a situation where this is going to be dragged out," Mr Kenny said.
Fine Gael remains on course for about 75 Dail seats, just a handful shy of majority single party government in the 166-strong parliament.
Meanwhile, their traditional rivals in Fianna Fail are reeling from high-profile losses across the country including outgoing Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, defeated in her Donegal South-West constituency.
Ms Hanafin lost the battle for the final seat in the Dun Laoghaire constituency to People Before Profit candidate Richard Boyd-Barrett.
The deputy Fianna Fail leader said there was a lot of anger and upset among voters.
"It's very much a hit against Fianna Fail, a hit against the Government," she said.
"When the tide is that strong against you, I couldn't swim against it."
Ms Coughlan and Ms Hanafin's losses were among several dynasties brought to a dramatic end including Conor Lenihan, son of a former Tanaiste and brother of the outgoing finance minister.
Brian Lenihan survived to become the only member of Fianna Fail to win a Dublin seat, but his aunt Mary O'Rourke was defeated in Longford-Westmeath.
Mr Kenny, who took control of Fine Gael after it was crushed in the 2002 election - flew by helicopter from his western constituency to celebrations in Dublin's Burlington Hotel.
Greeted by crowds of jubilant supporters, he pledged a new era of government focused on public duty not personal entitlement.
And he said the Irish people stood at a transformative moment in their history.
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