Campaigning is under way in the Irish General Election after the Taoiseach ended months of speculation by naming February 8 as polling day.

The Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar travelled to see President Michael D Higgins on Tuesday afternoon to ask for the formal dissolution of the Dail parliament.

Earlier, as he announced the election date outside Government Buildings in Dublin, Mr Varadkar insisted it was the “right time” for Ireland to vote.

Outlining his rationale, he highlighted that the Brexit withdrawal deal had been agreed and powersharing was restored in Northern Ireland.

He said there was a window before the European Council summit in March to enable an incoming government to secure a fresh mandate ahead of the next stage of Brexit negotiations.

It will be the first time an Irish General Election will be held on a Saturday.

The poll will be Mr Varadkar’s first General Election as Taoiseach.

He said it had been a “privilege” to lead the country since he took over from Enda Kenny in 2017.

General Election Ireland 2020
Michael Martin, leader of Fianna Fail, said it would be a vital election for Ireland (Damien Eagers/PA)

“As a nation, we have every reason to be hopeful about the future,” said Mr Varadkar.

“We’ve modernised our society – marriage equality, women’s rights, real progress in education, welfare and childcare.

“But, it’s not enough. I know it’s not enough. People want their Government to do much more. And I want us to do much more.”

He added: “Now I seek a fresh mandate so we can continue to build a better future. A future we can all look forward to.

“We have the team. We have the track record. We have the plans.”

Mr Varadkar’s minority Fine Gael-led administration had been facing potential defeat in a vote of no confidence in Health Minister Simon Harris in the first week of next month.

General Election Ireland 2020
President Michael D Higgins formally dissolved the 32nd Dail (Damien Eagers/PA)

That prospect will now be averted with the calling of the election.

Mr Varadkar’s personal preference was for a poll in the early summer, but changing arithmetic in the Dail meant he could no longer guarantee a majority on key votes.

The dissolution of the 32nd Dail will end the historic confidence and supply deal between the state’s two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

The landmark pact between two parties founded from opposing sides of Ireland’s Civil War of the 1920s was struck in the wake of the inconclusive 2016 general election.

The arrangement, along with the support of several independent TDs, had kept Mr Varadkar’s administration in power ever since.

Health and housing are set to be two of the key campaign issues, as the state continues to battle its worst ever housing crisis and hospital overcrowding reached record-breaking levels last year.

General Election Ireland 2020
Taioseach Leo Varadkar announces February 8 as polling day (Damien Eagers/PA)

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin highlighted those issues as he responded to the setting of the election date.

“For us and the Irish people in particular this is a vital election in terms of their future because we are facing enormous challenges,” he said.

“Particularly in terms of housing – the inability of people to afford houses, housing prices and housing rents are simply far too high and there is a deep, deep crisis of homelessness right across every level of housing.

“In health, again, we have a very serious crisis in terms of emergency departments and in terms of people waiting far too long for operations and procedures and for out-patient departments.

“Things are simply not working in this country in so many areas.”

While the election result will likely see the two main parties canvassing for junior partners in a new coalition government, they have both ruled out going into power with Sinn Fein.

Ulster powersharing
Mary Lou McDonald said the current government was completely out of touch (Niall Carson/PA)

Party president Mary Lou McDonald has insisted her rivals do not have the right to dictate whether Sinn Fein voters are good enough for government.

Reacting to the election date, she said the current government was “completely out of touch”.

“Despite improvements in the economy and more people back at work, people have less money in their pockets than three years ago,” she said.

“This election is about choices. It is about the future and the type of country we want to live in.

“Sinn Fein will be standing on a platform of giving workers and families a break.

“Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are about the status quo.”