If neither side holds a clear majority when final results are declared today it will trigger a political auction over the next three weeks, with the main blocs bidding for vital extra MPs' votes to achieve the 84 seats needed to elect a Prime Minister when parliament resumes on 26 June.
Sources in both Fianna Fail and Mr Bruton's Fine Gael party highlighted what they called "a serious chance" of Sinn Fein ending up with potential power-broking status in a hung parliament after former bank official Caoimhghin O Caolain made history by winning a seat for the IRA's political wing in the Cavan-Monaghan borderside constituency. Sinn Fein could end up with as many as three seats in the 166-strong Dail.
Dick Spring's Labour party saw its 19.8 per cent vote in 1992 halved on a low 65 per cent turnout.
Former Fianna Fail prime minister Albert Reynolds said the border result was partly a spill-over from Sinn Fein's Westminster success. "People are saying they want to get Sinn Fein into the process, as a better way of ensuring a lasting and durable peace."
Mr Spring insisted the Government coalition would not seek Sinn Fein support. He said "If you ask me ten times I'll give you the same answer. We're not going to Sinn Fein looking for support."
The result will have an immediate bearing on the pace of the peace process. Mr Ahern's Fianna Fail, midwife to the first IRA cease-fire in 1994 when Albert Reynolds was leader, has an easier relationship with Sinn Fein. Mr Ahern's election as Taoiseach might accelerate movement towards an IRA cease-fire, perhaps by September.
Mr Bruton has emphasised the importance of Dublin being even-handed with all sides. Under Mr Reynolds, Fianna Fail believed Dublin's role was to set up a cease-fire and then deliver nationalists and republicans to the negotiating table, while it fell to London to bring Unionism.
Sinn Fein would welcome Mr Ahern's election, but a Bruton-led Government might have more chance of advancing Unionist consent to a future political settlement.Reuse content