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Main party leaders face election day of reckoning

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Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin pictured with Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael Leo varadkar and Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald on set before the start of the Prime Time Leaders Debate in RTE.:Frank McGrath

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin pictured with Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael Leo varadkar and Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald on set before the start of the Prime Time Leaders Debate in RTE.:Frank McGrath

Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin pictured with Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael Leo varadkar and Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald on set before the start of the Prime Time Leaders Debate in RTE.:Frank McGrath

The country's three most senior political leaders are facing into the political unknown as voters make a significant demand for change in today's General Election.

The political careers of Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald will be defined by a seismic election campaign that left voters with serious choices to make. All three leaders were yesterday hopeful of being in contention as campaigning came to an end.

However, after a series of shock opinion polls, it remained unclear what the make-up of the next Dáil will be. With voters going to the polls for the first time on a Saturday, there is also increasing concern among candidates about Storm Ciara, which is set to batter the country today.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar faces the prospect of being one of the shortest-serving taoisigh in Irish history unless he pulls off a remarkable comeback after a campaign in which Fine Gael fell behind Sinn Féin in the polls.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach remained defiant and insisted the election was still a "three-horse race" with all three parties within "shouting distance of each other".

"It is down to the public -they will decide which party is the largest party on Sunday and I believe that will be Fine Gael," he added.

However, senior figures in Fine Gael have conceded the party is unlikely to be the largest in the next Dáil and are preparing for some high-profile election casualties.

There does, though, remain some cautious optimism within the party that voters may yet shift towards it at the last minute despite the strong mood for change that many TDs and candidates have encountered in recent weeks.

Mr Martin faces the defining moment of his over 30-year political career as he bids for a third time to lead Fianna Fáil into government and avoid becoming the first leader of his party to fail to hold the office of the Taoiseach.

Fianna Fáil is hoping to significantly increase its seats to be in a position to form a government with the Green Party and others. Mr Martin refused to be drawn on seat numbers yesterday: "I have never given a specific number - but we had a very good day in 2016 coming from where we were. Obviously, we want to increase our number of seats again.

"But I am in no doubt that our team this year and the strength of our candidate tickets around the country is far stronger than it was going into the 2016 election and that gives me confidence and hope."

But Fianna Fáil's progress may be stymied by the march of Sinn Féin, which is now set to make gains in this election that were seen as unlikely by party strategists three weeks ago.

For Ms McDonald, returning with significantly more Dáil seats would be a shock result after enduring a series of electoral setbacks over the last two years.

She has spent the campaign struggling to address her party's links to Provisional IRA atrocities and the role unelected party members have over those who sit in the Dáil.

However, following a surprise surge in this election campaign, Ms McDonald urged people "to vote for the kind of change that so many of you have told us that you want to see" and said her party should be given a chance to govern.

"We've heard a very loud message for change, you couldn't miss it and people understand that Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil is not change," she said.

Irish Independent