Ireland to hold early election on February 8

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael party is running level in the polls with centre-right rivals Fianna Fail

The Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar with President Michael D.Higgins at Aras an Uachtarain (The President's residence) dissolves the government in Dublin, Ireland January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan
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Voters in Ireland will head to the polls next month in an early general election as current Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar hopes to capitalise on recent successes on Brexit and restoring Northern Ireland’s power sharing government.

“The General Election will be held on Saturday February 8,” the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) announced on Tuesday.

Mr Varadkar’s Fine Gael party will face stiff competition from their centre-right rivals Fianna Fail with current opinion polling suggesting the two parties are running level.

The Taoiseach went to the residence of the Irish President Michael Higgins to ask him to dissolve the Dáil (Irish parliament).

"We have a deal on Brexit and Northern Ireland. Our economy has never been stronger; there are more people in work than ever before, incomes are rising, poverty is falling and the public finances are back in order," he said in Dublin.

Next month’s election is being called more than a year early. Mr Varadkar explained the timing was a “window of opportunity” to get a new government before the next European Council meeting in March.

The 40-year-old will be leading Fine Gael into an election for the first time, having taken over from former leader Enda Kenny in 2017.

While the growing Irish economy will help his campaign, crises in the health sector and housing market will strengthen opposition party arguments.

Fianna Fail's leader Micheál Martin said shortly before the poll date was announced that it was a “vital election” with the Irish people facing “enormous challenges”.

Fine Gael is currently ruling as a minority government having won 50 seats in the last general election in February 2016, well below the 80 needed to rule with a majority. Fianna Fail won 44 and leftists Sinn Fein third on 23.

Elections in Ireland commonly produce hung parliaments resulting in minority and coalition governments.