Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has shocked his party members by performing a spectacular U-turn on his long-standing opposition to working in government with Sinn Féin.
Mr Martin reversed his policy and opened the door to holding coalition talks with Mary Lou McDonald, whose party is surging towards a historic 37 Dáil seats.
Asked about a coalition with Sinn Féin, he said: "I'm a democrat," before adding, "I listen to the people, I respect the decision of the people."
Mr Martin's closest advisers said he believed the parties should take time to consider the seismic election result.
"Just because we talk to a party doesn't mean we are going into coalition with them," a source said.
However, senior Fianna Fáil TDs publicly rejected their leader's position and insisted they would not break their promise to voters.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar categorically ruled out talking to Sinn Féin about forming a government. Ms McDonald said she would talk to all parties.
However, Fianna Fáil's finance spokesperson Michael McGrath said coalition with Sinn Féin was not a "runner" because they were "poles apart" on economic policy.
Fianna Fáil's justice spokesperson Jim O'Callaghan also shot down any suggestion of a coalition with Sinn Féin. Mr Martin was questioned at length outside his count centre in Cork and on RTÉ about his position on Sinn Féin.
Having staunchly ruled out coalition with the party throughout the election campaign, his stance had noticeably softened.
"I've heard the people speak today. The people have voted in number and I respect that," he said.
Mr Martin said "one's policies" and "principles" don't change overnight and said there were still "significant issues" he had with Sinn Féin.
"But as I say over the next number of days we'll tease those out with all concerned."
Mr Martin's advisers last night insisted he was seeking to buy some time so the election results could be considered before talks kick off.
"Everyone needs to reflect and take stock of the election result," a source said.
"No one knew the Shinners would get a vote like that and it has to be taken into account but just because we talk to them it doesn't mean we are going into coalition," the source said.
The senior Fianna Fáil figures also said it was their belief that Sinn Féin's preferred option is to remain in opposition. Fianna Fáil also believes a coalition government will have to be made up of at least three parties.
Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar said that a coalition between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin is "not an option" and compared such an outcome to a "forced marriage".
Mr Varadkar said Fine Gael's position was clear before the election and insisted that his party had won votes on that basis.
"It wasn't a tactic or a strategy. It's what we honestly believe and for us coalition with Sinn Féin is not an option," he said.
He also warned it could take months to form a government based on the expected General Election result.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney said Fine Gael was still open to forming a grand coalition with Fianna Fáil.
However, Mr Coveney said that Fine Gael would not be offering a confidence and supply agreement to any party.
"We are open to talk to any party but we won't be forming a government with Sinn Féin," he said.
"The country needs a government - Fine Gael will work towards the formation of a government.
"But if we have to go into opposition, then so be it," he said.
During a day of election shocks, Sinn Féin won 29 seats with all first counts completed. Many candidates had substantial surpluses.
Several first-time Sinn Féin candidates were being elected in constituencies all across the country.
For much of the evening, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had won just one seat each.
Transport Minister Shane Ross was the first high-profile casualty of the election campaign after he conceded in his Dublin Rathdown constituency. Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty lost her seat in Meath East, while junior minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor narrowly lost out in Dún Laoghaire. Children's Minister Katherine Zappone is also in danger of losing her seat.
The Green Party was on course to substantially increase its seats.
However, the Labour Party did not look like it would make a significant impact, while Solidarity-People Before Profit also looked like it could lose seats but candidates may still benefit from Sinn Féin transfers.
Micheál Martin arrived at the count centre just in time to sing happy birthday to constituency rival Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire as the Sinn Féiner celebrated the double of turning 31 and topping the poll to retain his Dáil seat.
Opposition is not Leo Varadkar's first choice. He's spent two years in the Department of the Taoiseach and he likes it there. Government came easy to the country's youngest ever leader and he is not of a mind to give it up so quickly. He would be very reluctant to give up the State dinners with international dignitaries, the late night summits in Brussels and the personal relationships with world leaders.
It will be more than difficult for the ladies and gentlemen of Irish politics to form a stable government from this mayhem. Read John Downing's look at the options for achieving the magic 80-plus TDs … and then we can all quietly weep
Politicians are human too. It's easy to forget that they are living, breathing beings with feelings, with aspirations and with loved ones. Yet caricatures abound especially when the country is in election mode.