Fine Gael and Fianna Fail released identical statements on Tuesday saying they would start formal coalition discussion as the number of cases of COVID-19 in the Republic rose to 34. There are now 50 cases of the virus on the island of Ireland. The two parties, who have long been seen as the big beasts of Irish politics, have never formed a coalition.
Mr Martin said the domestic outbreak of the viral disease made forming a government “an imperative”.
In their statements issued simultaneously, Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar said in recent days they had held “constructive discussions” which focused on “ a series of policy issues and the current political situation”.
Mr Martin has refused to hold talks with nationalists Sinn Fein, who won the popular vote in the February 8 general election.
Acting Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, has also ruled out governing with Mary Lou McDonald’s group.
And Mr Varadkar had initially been reluctant to work with Fianna Fail.
He has repeatedly said his favoured position would be in opposition where he would work to rebuild his party.
But the rapid development of the coronavirus outbreak in Ireland led Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin to meet twice in the last 24 hours.
Fine Gael won only 35 seats in the 160-seat house compared to the 37 each won by Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.
Mr Martin said the epidemic had made coalition talks even more urgent than they were previously.
In a video posted by his party on Twitter, Mr Martin said: “Clearly the pubic health crisis has brought a new urgency to discussions.
“The enormous challenges that are presented to our society makes the formation of a government an imperative.”
The two parties have swapped power at every election since emerging from opposing sides of Ireland’s 1920s civil war.
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Both have said they would continue talks with the smaller Green Party.
The support of the Green would be needed to reach a majority in the fractured parliament.
Fianna Fail facilitated the last Fine Gael-led minority government from opposition.
But Martin said last week that he favoured a full coalition this time.
The parties said they entered the talks as equal partners, raising the prospect of an agreement to rotate the role of prime minister between Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar.
If they cannot agree a government deal and maintain their steadfast opposition to Sinn Fein – chiefly over its role as the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – a second election would be the only way to break the deadlock.
Any coalition deal would have to be ratified by grassroot members of Fine Gael and Fianna FaiL as well as Green Party members.
Theresa Reidy, a politics lecturer at University College Cork (UCC), said “A global crisis will certainly concentrate minds.
“Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have long traditions of being in government and their members understand that there has to be a government with a majority position to handle a crisis.”
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