Irish parties in crisis talks over February vote

Ireland’s crumbling government held crisis talks with opposition parties on Monday over their demands to bring elections forward to February and fast-track a finance Bill to secure an EU-IMF bailout.

The meeting, led by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, follows a torrid weekend in which Prime Minister Brian Cowen’s coalition lost the vital support of the Green party and Cowen himself resigned as leader of the Fianna Fail party.

Lenihan will be one of four candidates to run in the succession race, with former foreign minister Micheal Martin seen as the favourite.

Opposition parties on Monday gave Cowen an ultimatum to pass the austerity Bill and dissolve Parliament by the end of the week, or face a confidence vote that would make his government the first to fall victim to the euro debt crisis.

Cowen last week announced elections on March 11 amid growing anger that the one-time “Celtic Tiger” economy was forced to seek a bailout worth €67-billion in international funds in November.

“The bottom line for us is that debate on the finance Bill must be completed by Friday. This shambles of a government has to be brought to an end,” opposition Labour party finance spokesperson Joan Burton said.

“The delaying tactic is nothing to do with the devoting more time for the finance Bill and all about giving more time for Fianna Fail and its leadership election process,” Burton said.

Michael Noonan, finance spokesperson for the main opposition Fine Gael party, said Ireland was “lurching from crisis to crisis” and an early election was needed “some time in February” to restore confidence.

“With our low reputation in Europe it would be preferable if it could be passed provided it is not used as a delaying tactic by Fianna Fail,” Noonan told RTE state radio.

The European Union said it was “crucial” that Dublin passes the Bill before elections. Ireland is the second eurozone nation to seek a bailout after Greece needed emergency help last year.

“It is important for Ireland’s stability and credibility that this finance Bill is passed soon,” Amadeu Altafaj, spokesperson for EU economic affairs commissioner Olli Rehn, said in Brussels.

Delays on the Irish rescue could also throw back into turmoil the EU’s attempts to soothe markets worried about wider eurozone debt levels and a patchwork political response to date.

Nominations for the race to succeed Cowen as Fianna Fail leader closed on Monday with four candidates throwing their hats into the ring: Lenihan, Martin, Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv and Sports Minister Mary Hanafin.

A secret ballot of the parliamentary party will take place on Wednesday.

The bookies’ favourite is Martin, who resigned as foreign minister after he launched a failed leadership bid against Cowen last Tuesday.

But Cowen’s attempt to use Martin’s departure and five other apparently coordinated Cabinet resignations to force a reshuffle backfired and led to him quitting as leader of the party, which he has led since becoming premier in May 2008.

The Green party vetoed any new reappointments and pressured Cowen into announcing the March 11 general election date.

Pressure on Cowen over his handling of Ireland’s economic crisis has mounted in recent weeks after it emerged he had played golf with the former chairperson of Anglo Irish Bank, Sean FitzPatrick.

Anglo Irish had to be nationalised to prevent its collapse, and has become a symbol of the bad debts amassed by the banks which ravaged an economy once so vibrant it was dubbed the “Celtic Tiger”. — AFP

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