Ireland`s political parties hold crisis talks

Ireland`s opposition demanded for a key finance bill and set a new election date.

Dublin: Ireland`s opposition demanded Monday that the hobbled government should fast-track a key finance bill and set a new election date by the end of the week as crisis talks got under way in Dublin.

The main parties are meeting a day after the Greens pulled out of the governing coalition led by embattled Prime Minister Brian Cowen, meaning that polls called by Cowen for March 11 will likely be held earlier.

The Greens` departure and Cowen`s resignation as leader of his Fianna Fail party on Saturday deepens the crisis sparked by Dublin`s acceptance of an international bailout in November following the country`s financial meltdown.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was leading all-party talks on Monday over opposition calls for the government to push through the budget law -- which is needed to secure the European Union-International Monetary Fund bailout.

The package of loans worth 67 billion euros (90 billion dollars) is the second bailout for a eurozone country after Greece amid the single currency`s mounting debt crisis.

Ireland`s opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties, which are expected to form the next government, say they will facilitate passage of the law through both houses of parliament in return for Cowen announcing earlier elections.

But if the government does not agree then the parties say they will introduce motions of no confidence in the government and in Cowen himself.

Lenihan said it was "not realistic" to pass the law in just a week.

"We do need a tight timetable, I accept that. I will hear what the opposition have to say this afternoon. I will set out for them the practical difficulties," Lenihan said.

Lenihan is expected to be one of the candidates to replace Cowen as leader of Fianna Fail, Ireland`s traditional party of government. Nominations for the race close on Monday and a vote is expected on Wednesday.

Simon Coveney, chairman of Fine Gael`s policy team, said they reserved the right to vote for or against aspects of the finance bill, but he expected there would be a majority in parliament to pass it, as it was "by and large the same" measures as were in last December`s budget.

"The issue for us is the timing of taking it (the finance bill). We simply cannot allow this government to continue beyond this week because of the damage for Ireland with every day that this shambolic government remains in office," Coveney said.

"We will not facilitate the Fianna Fail party in buying itself time to allow a new leader to settle and prepare for the election. That is not in the national interest."

Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said the "critical thing" is that the government has to bring the election date forward.

She said an election could take place as early as February 18 but it was "absolutely possible" to hold it on February 25 "without any difficulty".

Pressure on Cowen over his handling of Ireland`s economic crisis mounted in recent weeks after it emerged he had played golf with the former chairman 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".

Last Tuesday Cowen survived a leadership challenge by then foreign minister Micheal Martin 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.

Bureau Report