Counting has started in the Irish general election as an exit poll puts the three main political parties tied in first preference votes. Ballot...

Counting has started in the Irish general election as an exit poll puts the three main political parties tied in first preference votes.

Ballot boxes from across the 39 constituencies were opened at 09:00 local time.

Indications from the exit poll suggest there is little difference in percentage terms between Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil.

Polling in the election closed at 22:00 on Saturday.

There will be live page coverage of the election results on the BBC News NI website from 12:00 GMT on Sunday.

The exit poll – commissioned jointly by Irish national broadcasters RTÉ and TG4, as well as The Irish Times and University College Dublin – indicates that Fine Gael – led by Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar – secured 22.4% of first preference votes, closely followed by Sinn Féin (22.3%) and Fianna Fáil (22.2%).

The poll suggest the parties may be equal in terms of percentages, but this will not translate into seats.

Ireland’s elections are carried out under the proportional representation (PR) voting system, using the single transferable vote (STV). Voters wrote “1” opposite their first choice candidate, “2” opposite their second choice, “3” opposite their third choice and so on.

This means that the picture presented when the first preference votes are counted does not completely reflect the final outcome.

Sinn Féin also ran 42 candidates across the 39 multi-seat constituencies, about half that of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which will have a knock-on effect on the number of seats it can secure.


By Chris Page, BBC News Ireland correspondent

One of the major stories of the election campaign was a surge in support for Sinn Féin in opinion polls.

The exit poll, carried out for several media organisations, has predicted that the party led by Mary Lou McDonald is on course to make significant gains.

It suggests Sinn Féin is one of three parties tied on 22% of the first preference votes.

The others are Fine Gael, which is led by current taoiseach (Irish prime minister), Leo Varadkar, and Fianna Fáil, which went into the election as the main opposition party.

During the campaign, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was the favourite to succeed Mr Varadkar.

But if the exit poll proves to be accurate, coalition negotiations will be extremely difficult and could last some time.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin – whose parties are broadly in the political centre – have both said they won’t go into government with Sinn Féin – which is strongly left-wing.

They have cited Sinn Féin’s links to paramilitary violence during the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin has emphasised its role in the peace process, and said excluding it from government would be anti-democratic.

The exit poll also suggests the Green Party secured 7.9% of first preference votes, followed by Labour (4.6%), Social Democrats (3.4%), Solidarity People Before Profit (2.8%).

Indications are that Independents took 11.2% of first preference votes.

The poll suggests a move toward Sinn Féin among younger voters, with the party receiving the largest number of first preference votes among 18-24 years olds (31.8%).

The majority of voters over the age of 65 appear to have given their first preference to Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

There is a margin of error of 1.3% in either direction in the exit poll.

RTÉ said voting appears to have been “solid”.

However, there is no expectation of a spike in voting compared to 2016, despite it being the first ever Saturday general election vote in the state’s history.

Factors that may have affected turnout include the poor weather and international rugby.

A total of 160 representatives will be returned to the Dáil (Irish parliament) and newly elected TDs will gather on 20 February .

The ceann comhairle, or speaker, is automatically re-elected.

In most situations, the speaker does not vote, so a government will need 80 TDs to hold a majority.

It is unlikely that any party will reach that number, so another coalition government is probable, although the composition is still unclear.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have said they would not enter coalition with Sinn Féin.

People living on 12 islands off the coasts of counties Galway, Mayo and Donegal voted on Friday.

Legislation to allow islanders to vote on the same day as other voters had not been passed by the time the general election was called.

Traditionally, islanders have voted ahead of the rest of the country to ensure that bad weather does not hamper the return of ballot boxes to the mainland in time for the count, which will start on Sunday.

About 2,100 island residents were eligible to vote.

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