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Irish election likely at end of March - opposition

DUBLIN (Reuters) - An Irish parliamentary election, which is widely expected to favour the opposition, will likely be held at the end of March, the opposition’s finance spokesman said on Friday.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen, the most unpopular premier in recent Irish history over his handling of the financial crisis, has pledged to call an election after parliament passes the 2011 budget.

Parliament has passed three of four bills underpinning the budget. Michael Noonan of the centre-right Fine Gael party said the final bill on taxation measures would be presented to the Senate on February 26. Parliament will have already voted on it.

Once the election is called, a minimum three week period for campaigning would be required.

“You could barely get in before St. Patrick’s day (March 17) on a 21-day election, it’s more likely to be on the 24th or 25th of March,” Noonan told state broadcaster RTE news.

Cowen’s Fianna Fail party, which has dominated Irish politics for most of the country’s 90 years of independence, is likely to suffer a record drubbing in the poll after critics blamed it for the financial demise that saw Ireland resort to an 85 billion euro EU/IMF bailout.

Opinion polls indicate Fine Gael will form a coalition government with the centre-left Labour party after the election. A new Paddy Power/Red C opinion poll showed Fine Gael with 35 percent of support, followed by Labour with 21 percent. Fianna Fail trailed behind at 14 percent.

Reporting by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by Janet Lawrence