Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he called a general election for next month, February 8, because he wants a new government in place for a crucial EU Summit on Brexit in March.
Speaking outside Government Buildings, Mr Varadkar said he had secured a deal on Brexit which would see the UK leave the EU by January 31.
However, he said Brexit was not done before adding: “it’s only half-time”.
“The next step is to negotiate a free trade agreement between the EU including Ireland and the United Kingdom that protects our jobs, our businesses, our rural communities and our economy,” he added.
“There exists now a window of opportunity to hold a general election and to have a new Government in place before the next European Council meeting in March with a strong mandate to focus on these negotiations into the summer and autumn,” he added. The EU Summit is to be held on March 26 and 27.
Mr Varadkar said holding a vote in April or May would mean parties would be effectively entering into a 3-4 month election campaign.
“During this time there’s a risk that difficult decisions would be deferred and irresponsible promises made. That would not be in the interests of our country,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said he decided on a Saturday, February 8th polling day to alleviate the pressure on parents seeking to vote and to allow people who live away from their constituencies return home to cast their ballot.
“I do so knowing the inconvenience to families of a polling day on a weekday during school term - time off work, lost income, increased childcare costs. I also want to make it easier for students and those working away from home to cast their votes,” he said.
He said he knew people were frustrated with the slow progress his Government has made in the areas on housing and health. Mr Varadkar said he “shared that frustration” and looked forward to sharing his election manifesto plans which will focus on home ownership and universal healthcare.
The Taoiseach said he was beginning to make “real headway” on climate action and the environment. “We’re no longer a laggard but we are still far from being a leader,” he added.
He also said he hoped to help families who are struggling with the cost of living.
“Many people don’t feel the strength of our economy in their pockets and they don’t see it in their payslips or in their towns and parishes. We have a plan for fairer taxes – for future jobs and for rural Ireland - to put that right,” he added.
Mr Varadkar arrived at Áras an Uachtaráin shortly before 2pm where he requested the dissolution of the 32nd Dáil.
President Michael D Higgins signed the Proclamation of Dissolution allowing the general election to officially begin.
Meanwhile, speaking at Leinster House before the election was formally announced, Micheál Martin said the campaign will be "neck-and-neck" and rejected the suggestion that he is in the lead at this point.
"I don't accept anything of the sort. I'm a very humble man, as you know, but as far as I'm concerned, it's very competitive," the Fianna Fáil leader said.
"I think it's neck-and-neck. If I'm honest, and I think there's a lot of competitive electoral battles in the different constituencies and that will be will be an important influence if you like will be determined on the outcome of the election."
Mr Martin said he would "love" a TV debate and signaled a preference to debate the Taoiseach.
"I would prefer a one to one and there may be other debating formats as well," he said.
He also said it was a “vital election” with the Irish people facing “enormous challenges”. He said there are serious crises in housing and health.
“Things are simply not working in this country in so many areas,” he added.
He also highlighted issues with the cost of living pointing to rent, childcare and insurance costs.
He promised Fianna Fáil will put forward a ”very comprehensive, positive agenda” in the election.
Mr Martin said: “it clearly is time for a change in government” to one that will “really focus on tangible and credible improvements” in health, housing and reducing the cost of living.
He criticised the government’s handling of the construction of the National Children’s Hospital and National Broadband Plan amid cost overruns in both projects.
He said “people are angry “ adding young people can’t aspire to home ownership and are finding difficult to pay rent.
He claimed the Fine Gael-led government “haven’t delivered” and “that is why we need a change”.
Mr Martin responded to Fine Gael’s slogan ‘A Future To Look Forward To’ claiming it reveals the “essence” of Mr Varadkar’s party and “everything is away into the future”.
He said people in an Emergency Department today “can’t wait for Fine Gael’s future”.
He claimed Fine Gael has made many people’s future “difficult and uncertain” and cited the number of homeless children.
He added: “I’m not so sure that Fine Gael’s version of the future is something that the Irish people will necessarily look forward to.”
Mr Martin said: “I think there will be a certain sort of shiver all over the country when they contemplate the prospect of a Fine Gael future.”
Mr Martin’s party is sticking with his ‘An Ireland For All’ slogan which he argued is more of a “philosophy”.
The Taoiseach’s plan to hold the vote on a Saturday will be a surprise to his Fine Gael colleagues as most ministers believed he would hold the election on either Friday, February 7th or 14th.
Mr Varadkar is expected to travel to Áras an Uachtaráin later today and seek the permission of President Michael D Higgins to end the 32nd Dáil and trigger a general election.
This means the election will officially start this afternoon with candidates facing a three and a half week campaign before polling day.
Mr Varadkar this afternoon kicked off his campaign on social media, posting a video online showcasing his time as Taoiseach.
It opens with international news broadcasters saying his name and a caption that claims he "secured a deal to protect Ireland's interests" in the Brexit talks.
It also highlights falls in unemployment and Fine Gael's promised income tax cuts.
It has a clip of Mr Varadkar on the Late Late Show in 2018 saying 20,000 homes were built that year while conceding "it's not enough" and highlights the Rebuilding Ireland plan.
Mr Varadkar's video also references the same-sex marriage and abortion referendums.
And it includes a line form his speech the day he was elected Fine Gael leader when he said: "I think if my election has shown anything if is that prejudice has no hold on this republic."
Mr Varadkar's election team appeared to steal a march on its rivals on Tuesday morning with posters erected in parts of Dublin West.
Sinn Féin's candidate in the constituency, councillor Paul Donnelly, posted a picture of posters being put up on lampposts on the Navan Road. He wrote on Twitter: "The Taoiseach @LeoVaradkar team putting up posters before the Dáil has been dissolved."
The Taoiseach's spokesman said the early erection of posters was a matter for Fine Gael.
On Sunday, Mr Varadkar confirmed that he had decided on an election date, but he said "protocol" meant he was not announcing it yet.
Last week, he said the election will be held when "it’s the right time for the country".
"When you're in politics, you always have to be prepared for an election, at the same time you can always be better prepared for election but that's not what matters. What matters is when it's the right time for the country," he said.
However, he did say he would be holding a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, today, and that the Dáil would return the following day.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that Fine Gael general election candidates have been asked to sign a party pledge confirming there is nothing in their “past life” they have not revealed which could bring the party into disrepute.
At a parliamentary party meeting last week, candidates signed an amended pledge confirming they had revealed any matter, including views they may have held, which could be a breach of Fine Gael’s ethos and principles.
It follows a number of controversies involving previous candidates, including Maria Bailey and Verona Murphy.
The candidates were asked to confirm they had no pending prosecutions or prior convictions other than minor road traffic offences which resulted in fines of less than €500.
They pledged they had revealed any Revenue Commissioner, Work Place Relations, Labour Court or Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement judgments made against them. Any civil litigation taken against them or their companies was also to be revealed to the party general secretary.
In the aftermath of the Maria Bailey controversy, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would be instructing all election candidates to reveal any involvement in legal proceedings.
He said he would also introduce a new party pledge which all candidates would be required to sign.
The pledge was updated this month and given to candidates last week when they met in Dublin to discuss the forthcoming general election.
It also emerged yesterday Mr Martin has signed up to a televised head-to-head election debate with the Taoiseach on Virgin Media.
However, Mr Varadkar has yet to confirm he will take on the Fianna Fáil leader in the debate being proposed by the station.
The Taoiseach's spokesperson said Mr Varadkar was looking forward to debating Mr Martin, but would consider all debates based on their merit.
RTÉ has yet to decide if it will hold a head-to-head debate featuring the leaders of the two main parties.
Meanwhile, former Fine Gael election candidate Verona Murphy has confirmed she is set to run as an Independent candidate in the forthcoming general election.
Ms Murphy confirmed to Independent.ie that she will mount a fresh bid for the Dáil.
Her entry into the race will cause a headache for Fine Gael in the south east constituency where its two incumbent TDs, Paul Kehoe and Michael D’Arcy, are battling for re-election.
Meanwhile, Disability Minister Finian McGrath has made the shock decision not to run in the general election.
Mr McGrath has been a TD since 2002 and has run in six Dáil elections.
In a statement, Mr McGrath said he had given the matter "careful consideration" and said stepping down was the right decision for himself and his family.
"I am far from retiring and will remain involved in political activism, supporting disability issues," he said.
"I hope to spend some time encouraging the 13pc of Ireland’s population who have some form of disability to get involved in politics at a local or nation level," he added.
He was first elected to the Dáil in the then Dublin North Central constituency in 2002 after failing to get elected on two previous elections.
He was re-elected in the three following elections.
Mr McGrath has long been an advocate for people with disabilities before he entered politics and campaigned tirelessly on their behalf on becoming a TD.