CASTLEBAR, Ireland (Reuters) - Ireland's governing Fine Gael party would consider forming a coalition with independents and its Labour party partners after elections next year, finance minister Michael Noonan said on Saturday.
Fine Gael and Labour won a record majority at the height of Ireland's financial crisis in 2011 but their support has been eroded by unpopular budget cuts and frustration over an uneven economic recovery.
Even after recovering some support, recent opinion polls suggest the government parties would still fall well short of maintaining their majority at elections scheduled for early 2016 as the independents' popularity surges.
"I think it's possible to elect a Fine Gael, Labour government but I would consider independents also," Noonan told national broadcaster RTE at his Fine Gael party's annual conference, raising the prospect for the first time.
"Quite a lot of the independents are center-right party people. I think a government might come from there."
With Fine Gael and leftist Sinn Fein ruling out being in government together, polls also point to a possible combination of Fine Gael and fellow center-right party Fianna Fail, fierce rivals who have fought each other for power for decades.
Fine Gael have sought to play down such a possibility and expressed a preference to maintain their alliance with the struggling Labour Party. Recent polls have shown Fine Gael and Sinn Fein as the most popular parties in the country, with Fianna Fail third and Labour a distant fourth.
"I wouldn't write off Labour," Noonan said. "I think Labour will have a quite credible result."
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Ruth Pitchford