(Adds comment from EU Greens)
By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN, May 25 (Reuters) - Support for Ireland's Green Party surged in European and local elections, an exit poll showed on Saturday, putting it in line to take its first seats in the European Parliament for 20 years and make the biggest gains in county and city councils.
The Greens were set to win as many as three of the 13 European seats up for grabs and increase their local vote to 9% from less than 2% five years ago, according to a RED C exit poll for RTE/TG4, a showing that would put them in contention for government formation if repeated at a parliamentary poll.
"We cannot yet count our chickens but the exit polls for the Irish Greens are extremely encouraging," Irish Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said in a statement issued by the European Greens.
European Greens co-lead candidate Bas Eickhout talked of a "green wave" rolling on to Irish shores from the Netherlands, where GroenLinks' (GreenLeft's) share of the vote rose to 10.5%, according to an exit poll there.
While Ireland does not hold a significant share of the 751-seat EU chamber -- and will initially send 11 MEPs until Britain actually leaves the bloc -- an ebb in support for mainstream parties is raising hopes among Europe's Greens that they could act as kingmakers.
"It is those climate strikes, it is those young people standing up and saying we have to protect our future," Ryan told national broadcaster RTE.
The exit poll showed that almost 90% of voters feel that the government needs to prioritise climate change more. Health Minister Simon Harris of the governing Fine Gael party said the topic came up on the doorsteps more in the last six months than through all of his last eight years as a member of parliament.
Fine Gael and the two main opposition parties Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein looked set to share most of the remaining European seats with results set to be announced from Sunday.
Counting was under way on Saturday to fill the almost 1,000 council seats, the first electoral test for Prime Minister Leo Varadkar since he took over as Fine Gael leader two years ago.
The exit poll put Fine Gael and fellow centre-right Fianna Fail level on 23%, both down slightly on 2014 when Fianna Fail emerged as the biggest party, setting it up to close the gap on its rival in parliamentary elections two years later.
The left wing Sinn Fein was set to fall to 12% from 15%, suggesting a further fragmentation of party support in Ireland, although no one party would be "terribly upset" by the predicted outcome, said Theresa Reidy, a politics lecturer at University College Cork.
"The clear message from Ireland: the centre is holding on the back of a Green tsunami," Reidy said.
(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels Editing by Helen Popper)
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