AFTER six hours of talking, Fine Gael TDs have decided they want to spent the next five years on the opposition benches.
However, they have mandated Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss the current political impasse with other parties – provided he doesn’t take part negotiations on a programme for government.
The parliamentary party has left open the possibility that Mr Vardakar will engage in such negotiations at a later date if Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil fail to work together.
Fine Gael’s 37 TDs were all allotted time at today’s meeting which dragged on much longer than expected.
In a statement afterwards, a spokesperson said: “We are preparing to go into Opposition.”
Mr Varadkar told representatives that after nine years in government he relishes the challenge to lead a strong and effective Opposition for the benefit of the country.
“In particular, Fine Gael will represent the interests and the aspirations of the 450,000 people who voted for the Party in the election and hold the new government to account,” the spokesperson said.
The Taoiseach said he also plans to consult with public representatives and members about the future direction of Fine Gael, and looks forward to rebuilding the Party in the years ahead.
The Parliamentary Party agreed that the onus is on Sinn Féin to form a Government of the left with the support of independents.
“Sinn Féin has an obligation to the people who voted for it to show whether or not it can honour the extraordinary promises they made.
“If Sinn Féin fails in that challenge then the onus passes to Fianna Fáil to form a government with them, and or with the Greens, Labour and Social Democrat parties and independent,” the Fine Gael statement added.
Mr Varadkar was mandated to “engage with other parties to share our analysis and perspectives on the outcome of the General Election”.
“There will be no negotiations on a Programme for Government without a further mandate from the Parliamentary Party.”
Another meeting has been scheduled for next week.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Varadkar said he didn't seek or get a mandate to engage with other political parties to negotiate a program for government.
Mr Varadkar said he doesn't foresee a grand coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil happening.
He pointed to what he said during the campaign of it being a "last resort" and said "it shouldn't come to that... it shouldn't come to the fact that Fine Gael may be needed.
"Other parties sought a mandate, made a lot of extraordinary impossible promises to the Irish people and they have a duty now to fulfill those promises or come out here on the plinth and say that they failed," he said.
Mr Varadkar said he wasn't surprised by the majority of Fine Gael TDs and Senators who spoke in favour of going into Opposition.
He said this is because: "They were my feelings too".
"I felt reassured if anything - while there was a diversity of views - that the majority of our parliamentary party had come to the same conclusion that I did that it’s now our job to be the Opposition."
Mr Varadkar said he will be putting his name forward in a Dáil vote on selecting a Taoiseach on Thursday but he doesn't expect to be elected.
"Whether I put my name forward to subsequent meetings is yet to be decided."
He said that under the Constitution he is required to resign on Thursday.
"I will do that I stay in office as Taoiseach with full executive authority until such time as a new Taoiseach is elected.
"So the first thing I will do, having left this place to go to the Áras to resign, is go to Brussels to represent the country in the talks on the EU Budget."
He said: "I'll be very strongly defending the position of Irish farmers and opposing any cut to the budget of the Common Agriculture Policy."
Asked if he expects to be in office as Taoiseach during the annual St Patrick's Day trip to the White House he said: "I have no idea."
Mr Varadkar said he "absolutely" accepts responsibility for Fine Gael's election campaign where the party lost seats.
He said people in the party felt his TV debate performance "helped pull things back in the last week".
But he added: "That's all history now. The future is about leading the party into Opposition."
He said he wants to rebuild Fine Gael and "turn it into a fighting force again".
Mr Varadkar said that under party rules if Fine Gael is not in the next government he has to put his name forward to the Parliamentary Party for a vot of confidence within two months.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald insisted it's still possible to form a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael but admitted the numbers make this "tricky".
Ms McDonald's party was accused of giving up on government formation talks after Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin said he didn't think it was possible to form a government without the support of the other two large parties.
Ms McDonald earlier today said that talks with smaller parties and independents will continue this week with a view to delivering a government of "change".
She said: "There is undoubtedly a solid block of TDs for change for a new government. I remain very determined that we deliver that government."
She said they need to "knuckle down" on policy issues like housing and reducing the State pension age to 65.
"We are still very determined that an alternative and a new government of change can be created. And we will intensify our efforts this week when we have conversations with other parties and with Independents to make that so."
Asked if she was saying a Sinn Féin government without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael is still possible, she said: "All options are still on the table".
She added: "but we're all able to count, we're able to add, and we're able to subtract, so I think we have recognised that the mathematics are tricky.
"And that's okay. That's one consideration. But the bigger consideration is policy and ideas and delivery.
More to follow…