After two days of hectic vote counting, three-and-a-half weeks of even more hectic campaigning, and an eternity waiting for the race to begin in the first place, the final seats of General Election 2020 were finally filled just before midnight.

However, unlike more mundane elections of the past, politicians have almost immediately been faced with the inevitable question - now what?

While the election results and the now-known make-up of the 33rd Dáil would normally be the beginning of the end of the national political drama, in the democratic twilight zone of recent days they are in reality just the end of the beginning.

The unprecedented near three-way dead heat between Fianna Fáil on 38 seats, Sinn Féin on 37 and Fine Gael on 35 means there is no clear winner in terms of what ultimately counts the most - the Dáil seat numbers.

And, to make matters even more complicated, for the first time in modern history no two-party combination of the three main parties will resolve the matter either.

With all parties nowhere near the coveted 80 seats needed to secure a Dáil majority, the situation will force Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar to consider potential coalition options they would never previously have countenanced.

A Sinn Féin-led left-wing minority government; a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition with a smaller party making up the numbers; or a "grand coalition" of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil with a smaller party dragging them up to the magic 80 mark are all rumoured options.

However, whether any of the three leaders bite on the possibilities - and just as crucially whether the smaller parties will be open to being a kingmaker who could quickly become a mudguard - remains at this stage an open question.

And all this means one other option - a second general election within weeks cannot be ruled out. Just when we all thought this weekend's political soap opera's credits were finally starting to roll.

A Grand Coalition (with a little help from a smaller party friend)

Ever since the last general election in February 2016, the possibility of a "grand coalition" between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has been rumoured.

Indeed, former Fine Gael leader and taoiseach Enda Kenny specifically raised the prospect during talks with Fianna Fáil at the time.

The idea behind a grand coalition is that, rather than a confidence and supply arrangement, Ireland's two civil war parties would ditch the pretence and formally go into coalition with each other, thereby securing "stability" for the country and burying the hatchet in the ground rather than repeatedly in each other's backs.

It was a live possibility in 2016, and had been suggested in the final days of this election as a potential option for Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin if they wanted to keep the Sinn Féin wolves from the door.

But this weekend's results mean the option is nowhere near as straightforward as it seemed just days ago.

The bare faced facts of this election show that, even if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil wanted to pursue a grand coalition, they simply do not have the numbers to do so, with Fine Gael's 35 seats and Fianna Fáil's 38 adding up to just 73 - a full seven short of the bare minimum for a Dáil majority.


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The grand coalition could still work if the Greens (12 seats), or a combination of the Social Democrats (6 seats), Labour (6 seats) or Independents (any out of 20 seats) were willing to scramble on board.

However, it is an open question as to why any smaller party would do so, given the fact they may be kingmakers in the short-term but would quickly risk becoming the mudguard for two larger parties at a time when voter demands for change are ringing loudly in every politician's ears.

The Greens (2007-2011) and Labour (2011-2016) will still be all too familiar with the risks posed by becoming the meat in the sandwich in any coalition arrangement, with both parties continuing to show the wounds of their most recent terms in government.

While this does not mean the option should be ruled out entirely, the fact both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be acutely aware leaving a surging Sinn Féin as the main opposition power could become a disastrous double own goal means the grand coalition is growing less likely by the day.

A Sinn Féin-led left-leaning minority government

The moment it became clear Sinn Féin's Dáil seat numbers would surge in this election, Mary Lou McDonald has sought to take control of the post-election narrative.

The initially unanswered calls to smaller parties leaders on Sunday when the majority of votes were still being counted, the public comments that she can become Ireland's first female Taoiseach, and numerous media interviews have all been designed to underline this point.

Among her and her party colleagues remarks has been the constant argument that Sinn Féin can lead a left-leaning government that can ignore Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil altogether.

Music to the ears of a key and influential electoral demographic, in other words.

However, like the "grand coalition" option, and to paraphrase a previous comment from former Labour leader Pat Rabbitte, you might campaign in poetry, but you always negotiate in prose.

While Sinn Féin has performed exceptionally well in this election - winning 37 seats while running just 42 candidates - the reality is no combination of parties which ignores Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil works.

Even if Sinn Féin's 37 seats were added to by the Greens (12 seats), the Social Democrats (6 seats), Labour (6 seats), Solidarity-People Before Profit (5 seats), another 14 of the 20 newly minted Independent TDs would still be needed to reach the 80 seats needed for a majority.

It has been suggested by some political insiders that the rainbow left-leaning coalition could still work if either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael supported it from opposition in a new confidence and supply arrangement in order to ensure "stability" for Ireland during the ongoing Brexit trade talks.

The need for this stability has been a key calling card of Fine Gael throughout the general election campaign and Fianna Fáil has already spent four years supporting a government from opposition, so there is an argument of how much would another few years really hurt.

However, the fact Fine Gael has shown exactly zero interest in such a proposal to date means their involvement is highly unlikely, while Fianna Fáil's electoral beating means most of their supporters response to being asked how much another confidence and supply deal could hurt is an inevitable "quite a bit, actually".

Fianna Fáil-Greens-Sinn Féin

Of all the options on the table, a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin with a smaller party thrown in to act as a buffer - and crucially provide both Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald with political cover - would appear to be among the most realistic.

While Micheál Martin has been adamant throughout the campaign and throughout his career that he would never so much as give Sinn Féin a second glance when it came to coalition, election results can do strange things to even the most moral of politicians.

On Sunday, Mr Martin broke with his own staunch position on the subject and said that he is a "democrat" and will "respect" the voice of the people.

While he quickly - and it should be said, less quietly - added any potential coalition that may come from such chit-chat would have to involve "coherent" policies, his remarks gave every indication he is warming to the possibility.

The fact Mr Martin will be acutely aware he has now failed to lead the soldiers of destiny to a Dáil majority for the third general election under his watch, and is at real risk of becoming the first Fianna Fáil leader to never be taoiseach, is a reason for this apparent sudden change of heart.

The belief is added to by the fact a number of high-profile Fianna Fáil TDs have said they are open to a potential coalition with Sinn Féin, both before and after Mr Martin's remarks.

And, given Ms McDonald's own plans to grab power, the previously unthinkable possibility could work.

Fianna Fáil (38 seats) and Sinn Féin (37 seats) on their own have a combined 75 seats in the next Dáil, meaning they are just a short step away from entering government together if they are serious about the possibility.

The Greens, Labour or the Social Democrats would appear to be the most obvious solutions to the five seat gap to a Dáil majority in this circumstance, a solution which in theory both Mr Martin and Ms McDonald could easily find with relatively simple side-deals.

However, politics is not just about the numbers set out in black and white, with all pieces of the puzzle carrying their own complications.

After decades of sniping at each other, neither Sinn Féin nor Fianna Fáil can realistically waltz into Government Buildings together, with both needing a third part of the coalition jigsaw to give them political cover.

If such a coalition were to work, Sinn Féin would need another party - particularly either the climate action-focused Greens or the socially progressive Social Democrats - to reinforce their election image as a party of change, even if that change involves doing a deal with Fianna Fáil.

Similarly, Fianna Fáil will need a buffer between it and its former worst enemy in order to protect itself from the less savoury aspects of Sinn Féin's history - both long ago and more recent - with the Greens and Social Democrats again seen by some as a perfect way to achieve this.

Which begs the question: why would the Greens or Social Democrats take the bait?

A deal ensuring either, or both, parties had their policies implemented in full could be enough, and would certainly be reason enough to consider entering government.

But other parties - including the Greens, Labour on multiple occasions throughout recent Irish history, and the now non-existent Progressive Democrats - have believed that in the past too, only to see their kingmaker crown quickly replaced with a mudguard-linked dunce's hat, meaning they may be more wary of taking up any future offer than some might suggest.

That is all, of course, leaving out the potentially most difficult hurdle to any Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin deal -trust.

Sinn Féin and Ms McDonald will no doubt be aware that Fianna Fáil would only consider a coalition as an absolute last resort, with the sneaking suspicion Micheál Martin's party would tear up any agreement the moment it best suited them.

And, given Mr Martin's long-held suspicions about Sinn Féin itself, it is worth contemplating whether his Sunday remarks about Sinn Féin were a genuine offer to open the door to a deal, or just a wily bid to be seen to open the door to talks to help win back a fleeing electorate - before slamming the door shut again and padlocking it this time once the necessary optics have been put forward.

It is likely talks may happen. But whether they result in anything remains to be seen.

A Second Election

The complications in all of these options mean there is one other possibility that cannot be entirely discounted. And for those with bleary, sleep deprived eyes after the weekend's count centre drama, it may not be what they want to hear.

A second general election within weeks or months is, at this stage, a genuine possibility as a direct result of the near three-way dead heat caused by last weekend’s vote.

And, in keeping with one of the many themes of this election, that in itself carries hidden difficulties for all parties concerned.

The fact no party has broken the 40-seat mark, and the reality that the three main parties are in the unprecedented situation of being within three seats of each other, means despite the fanfare from some and the depression from others, no party has in fact won this election in purely numerical terms.

That in turn means if the three biggest parties cannot stomach or devise a way to work with each other, the only other alternative is to go to the polls again in search of a more coherent answer on what to do from the public.

Such a move could play into the hands of Sinn Féin, which will understandably be buoyed by its performance and believe it can win even more seats in any second election if it runs more than 42 candidates next time around.

However, there is also a risk for Ms McDonald's party in that a public seeking change may stick with their recent political bedfellow, or could be frustrated by a lack of a decision from Sinn Féin when it was needed and look elsewhere - a possibility which could be further supported by some concern over Dessie Ellis' "come out you black and tans" and David Cullinane's "up the ra" comments in recent days.

Similarly, while both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would hope they could perform better if a second election comes soon, it is not unreasonable to suggest this improved performance would only be possible if they fully understand what went wrong in the first place - and make it clear to the public they have learned their lesson.

All seats have been filled for the 33rd Dáil and General Election 2020 has, in theory, concluded.

However, while the count centres are closing up and the new TDs getting used to their new titles, there remains an unshakable feeling that this weekend is not the beginning of the end of the drama, more just the end of the beginning.