Irish PM blunder forces early election

DUBLIN Thu Jan 20, 2011 2:26pm EST

Brian Cowen, Irish Prime Minister and leader of Fianna Fail, waves to photographers with his wife Mary after winning a vote of confidence from members of his own party in Dublin January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Brian Cowen, Irish Prime Minister and leader of Fianna Fail, waves to photographers with his wife Mary after winning a vote of confidence from members of his own party in Dublin January 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen was forced to call an early March election on Thursday after an attempt to reshuffle his cabinet backfired, with a third of his cabinet resigning in just over 24 hours.

Cowen's unexpected bid to promote new faces to a government in its final days was the last straw for his junior coalition partners the Greens who said it was "the final insult" and threatened to withdraw support unless he ditched the plan and named a date for a parliamentary poll.

"The government will continue to do its job ... and then we will have an election on the 11th of March," Cowen told the lower chamber.

Opposition politicians said his administration was in chaos.

"It's a damning, damning indictment of this government. A lame duck Taoiseach (prime minister) with a lame duck government," Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O Caolain told parliament."

Before Thursday, Cowen had been signaling the election would come in late March or early April and had been in ebullient form after winning a vote of confidence in his leadership of the ruling Fianna Fail party on Tuesday.

The most unpopular premier in recent history over his handling of the economic crisis, Cowen misjudged the reaction of the Green Party and Irish people to a cabinet reshuffle widely viewed as "jobs for the boys."

Green Party leader John Gormley said the party heard about the cabinet resignations in the media and that Cowen's move for a reshuffle was presented as a "fait accompli."

"We said very clearly that we were not in a position if it went to a vote in (parliament) to support this because it was our very strong view that this was a poor decision and would send out all the wrong signals," he told a news conference.

PUBLIC DISCONNECT

Some members of the Fianna Fail party were livid at Cowen's apparent pre-election strategy to try and shore up some of his fellow lawmakers' chances ahead of the election.

"This has totally backfired, I've been in the Dail (parliament) for 23 years and I have never seen anything like this," Fianna Fail backbench MP Tom Kitt told national broadcaster RTE.

"I'm really infuriated by what's happened. It has been totally mismanaged and the main thing that's come across is that there is a total disconnect with the leadership of my party and the public out there. People are rightly very upset."

Cowen said that existing ministers would take on the duties of six colleagues, all but one of whom resigned as part of the reshuffle plan. Most intend to retire after the election.

Cowen has taken on the duties of foreign minister after Micheal Martin challenged him in Tuesday's confidence vote.

The public was not impressed by the turmoil in government.

"I'd line them up against a wall and shoot the lot of them," said Bernadette, owner of a wine-importing business.

The Greens had been seeking a poll since last year, when the government was forced to seek a bailout from the EU and the IMF to deal with a financial meltdown that has forced Irish people to emigrate at a rate of 1,000 a week in search of employment.

Under the terms of the bailout, Ireland has to tackle the worst budget deficit in Europe. Cowen said the government would ensure that the final piece of legislation underpinning the 2011 austerity budget would be passed.

The Finance Ministry is expected to publish the finance bill on Friday, Gormley said.

In addition to its fiscal goals, Dublin has a strict timetable for overhauling its banking sector. Most of the work scheduled to be completed by the end of this quarter can be completed despite an election campaign.

Surveys signal the center-right Fine Gael party and the center-left Labour party will sweep to power and form the next coalition government.

Fianna Fail, which has dominated Irish politics since independence from Britain, could lose half its 74 parliamentary seats, according to opinion polls, consigning it to the opposition benches for years.

Cowen's miscalculation over the reshuffle will have damaged them even further.

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