Sunday, January 23, 2011

Irish govt in crisis as coalition partners pull out

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen's government was in tatters Sunday after the junior coalition partners pulled out, in a move likely to spark elections even earlier than those planned for March 11.

Green Party leader John Gormley told a press conference in Dublin that "our patience has reached an end" after a week of political turmoil that resulted in Cowen quitting as leader of his ruling Fianna Fail party on Saturday.

"Because of these continuing doubts, the lack of communication and the breakdown in trust, we have decided that we can no longer continue in government," Gormley said after talks with his party's national executive.

However, he said his six lawmakers would support a finance bill seen as vital to securing a 67-billion-euro (90-billion-dollar) international bailout agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in November.

"We will remain true to our promise to support the finance bill from the opposition benches with the promised co-operation of the opposition parties," he said.

Shortly afterwards, Cowen told reporters he accepted the Green party's decision and thanked them for their work in government, adding that he remained focused on getting the finance bill through parliament.

"The important thing now is to have an orderly completion of the finance bill in the interests of the country and then obviously we move to a dissolution of the Dail (parliament) and a general election," he said.

Asked if he should resign now, Cowen replied: "I think it important that we get the finance bill through and we need a government to do that."

He said there would be discussions about the timetable for the bill on Monday, but said a request by the opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties to get it done in time to call an election on Friday was "not possible".

Gormley also cast doubt on the timetable, but said his party was in talks with the opposition leaders and added: "We also hope that the Fianna Fail party will make every effort to fast-track this legislation."

Cowen had been under pressure for months over his handling of the debt crisis that brought Ireland to its knees and caused it to become the second eurozone country after Greece to accept a bailout last year.

He survived a leadership challenge by foreign minister Micheal Martin last week, but an attempt to use Martin's subsequent resignation and five other apparently coordinated cabinet resignations to force a reshuffle backfired.

The Green party vetoed any new reappointments and pressured Cowen into announcing the election date of March 11. Two days later he quit as leader of his party, which he has led since becoming premier in May 2008.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny had described the situation "is complete madness", saying on Saturday: "We are now the laughing stock of Europe. We have a leaderless party and a powerless Taoiseach (prime minister)."

Martin is now the frontrunner to take over Fianna Fail, although he will be up against Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, Defence Minister Eamon O Cuiv and Trade Minister Mary Hanafin, who all declared their candidatures Saturday.

Nominations close at 1:00pm (1300 GMT) Monday, ahead a vote planned for Wednesday at a 2:00pm (1400 GMT) in Dublin.

Fianna Fail is expected to be punished by voters angry at the economic crisis, which has led to the imposition of harsh austerity measures.

Cowen said in his resignation speech that the centrist party -- which is currently polling at about 14 percent -- could now fight the election "free from internal distractions".

However, Green leader Gormley said Sunday: "The ongoing saga in relation to the Fianna Fail leadership, which is a total distraction from government... has not been resolved.

"Unfortunately I think very many people now feel that we need an election. That has always been our view and that is why we are going to have that election."

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