The Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar has called a general election for 8 February, triggering a campaign that is expected to focus on his government’s record on public services, housing, Brexit and the climate crisis.
Varadkar briefed his cabinet and opposition leaders on Tuesday morning and made a public statement before travelling to the Phoenix Park to ask the president, Michael D Higgins, to dissolve the 32nd Dáil.
Addressing the media at Government Buildings in Dublin, Varadkar said it had been a privilege to serve the country and that a short campaign would let a new government swiftly tackle urgent issues. “I always said that the election should happen at the best time for the country. Now is that time,” he said.
Unusually the election will take place on a Saturday – and coincide with a Six Nations rugby match against Wales at the Aviva stadium.
An election had been expected. Varadkar’s Fine Gael party leads a minority administration reliant on dwindling support from independent TDs (MPs) plus a nearly expired confidence and supply agreement with the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil.
Opinion polls closely match Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, both centrist parties. Neither is within range of a majority so the winner will be whichever party succeeds in forming a viable coalition with smaller parties after the election.
Varadkar and the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, have both ruled out going into government with Sinn Fein. That leaves the Labour party, the Greens and a clutch of leftwing groups and independents as potential partners.
The Green party’s success in European and council elections last year, plus youth-led climate protests, has prompted Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to tout environmental credentials.
As Ireland’s first gay prime minister and the son of an Indian immigrant, Varadkar attracted global attention when he took office in June 2017, aged just 37.
He did so not via a general election but by succeeding Enda Kenny, who stepped down as taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael after winning elections in 2011 and 2016.
Varadkar earned widespread praise in Ireland for rallying European Union support behind the backstop, a mechanism to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, during Brexit negotiations with the UK. His meeting with Boris Johnson in Liverpool last October paved the way to an eventual deal.
Liberals also applauded Varadkar for his role in a 2018 referendum that legalised abortion, a milestone in Ireland’s transformation from a socially conservative Catholic society to secularism and and pluralism.
Fine Gael will fight the election on its record on Brexit and the economy, which has bounced back from the Celtic Tiger crash with high growth rates, near-full employment and bountiful tax revenues swollen by tech giants.
However the party risks voter fatigue – it has ruled for almost a decade. And it has presided over crises in housing and health.
A shortage of accommodation in Dublin and other cities and towns has sent rents rocketing, forced many people to make long commutes and others to live in shelters or on the streets.
The government has failed to tame a dysfunctional health service that swallows huge resources but produces patchy results, with record numbers of patients languishing on trolleys.
Unexpectedly huge costs for a children’s hospital and national broadband have hit the government’s claim of competent financial stewardship.