Martin's ultimatum: vote for me today or be stuck with Kenny
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has played the ultimate gamble and told Independents to vote for him today - or settle for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.
Talks between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael about the formation of a minority government collapsed into chaos last night after Mr Martin decided to try and force 15 Independents off the fence ahead of today's vote for Taoiseach.
The move caused panic within Fine Gael, who accused Fianna Fáil of a complete "breach of faith" after two days of talks.
Negotiating teams from the parties met twice yesterday afternoon and were due to reconvene at 8pm to begin debating policy issues.
However, Fianna Fáil claimed their discussion papers were not ready and the meeting was cancelled.
Fine Gael reacted furiously - with sources saying their rivals had "utterly failed" to engage on policy issues and were "playing a game".
However, they were unaware that Mr Martin had spent the afternoon phoning Independents in a final attempt to get support for a Fianna Fáil government.
A senior Fianna Fáil source said Independents were issued the ultimatum: "Vote for us or you're stuck with Enda.
"The bottom line is, it's the last time the Independents can vote for Micheál Martin," the source said.
Fianna Fáil sources also said Mr Martin was told by a number of Independents that Mr Kenny is "toxic" and that they are leaning towards voting for the Fianna Fáil leader.
Mr Martin has told colleagues he is growing more and more confident that he can win the support of a number of Independents.
Significantly, Fianna Fáil strategists suggested that if Mr Martin picks up more votes from Independents today, it will provide "momentum" for a Fianna Fail-led minority government.
"If we pick up votes and Enda doesn't, it will give us the momentum to do what we have always said we intend to do - lead a minority government," the source said.
Two Fine Gael sources directly involved in the talks told the Irish Independent that the Fianna Fáil team had always accepted in "the privacy of the room" that they were working towards a deal that would result in a Fine Gael-led minority.
"The public deserves to know that," said the source, who suggested that Fine Gael now feel they were lured into the talks under false pretences.
They added that Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe were "extremely frustrated" by the development.
However, they are willing to "resume" talks if Enda Kenny wins today's vote.
As the row deepened last night, Fianna Fáil claimed that they felt disrespected by Fine Gael's insistence that Enda Kenny was the only viable option for Taoiseach and decided to take matters into their own hands.
It is understood that Mr Martin's team, which is made up of Barry Cowen, Michael McGrath, Charlie McConalogue and Jim O'Callaghan, were aware of their party leader's plan during their afternoon meetings with Fine Gael.
A source said they felt it wasn't "appropriate" to discuss policy before the views of Independents on which leader should become Taoiseach, are apparent.
Fianna Fáil believes that "a significant number" of Independents are prepared to back Mr Martin as Taoiseach while accepting that Fine Gael are "maintaining they have support from Independents as well".
"We will see if Independents will declare in Fianna Fáil's favour. If they do, the option of a Fianna Fáil minority government will have to be respected."
Four questions to answer before new government can be formed
The Government-making process involves four issues that must be resolved. Here they are in summary:
1 Will Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil lead a minority government?
It is more likely to be Fine Gael with 51 TDs' votes (50 FG plus Michael Lowry). But Fianna Fáil, with 43 TDs (44 minus Ceann Comhairle Sean Ó Fearghaíl) still has a notional chance.
That puts the spotlight upon the 15 out of 23 Independents who engaged in government talks.
2 Why can Fianna Fáil not accept they don't have enough numbers and cede to Fine Gael?
With an original gap of just seven TDs behind Fine Gael when all votes were counted, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had to be seen to be seriously chasing government leadership.
By now a declaration from the Independents would help Fianna Fáil to gracefully withdraw.
3 So, which side will these 15 Independents pick?
They look set to pick different sides or abstain. It is unlikely that enough will side with Fianna Fáil to offset Fine Gael's eight-vote lead.
Independents say they are awaiting the outcome of Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil talks before they publicly declare.
But these talks in turn depend a lot on the Independents' stance.
4 What of the other 'non-combatants' in government-making?
Sinn Féin's 23 TDs, the six AAA-PBP deputies, and seven Independents are set for Opposition. The seven Labour TDs, three Social Democrats, and two Green Party TDs, have stood back.
But this trio of parties, totalling 12 TDs, could still play a role by selective voting or abstaining.
Fine Gael especially hope they can get help from some or all of these.