Irish PM forced to set March 11 election date

Ireland`s PM has bowed to pressure over a botched cabinet reshuffle.

Updated: Jan 21, 2011, 13:12 PM IST

Dublin: Ireland`s Prime Minister Brian Cowen on Thursday called a general election for March 11 as he bowed to pressure over a botched cabinet reshuffle and his handling of the country`s economic crisis.

His announcement came after his coalition partners threatened to withdraw their support over his plan to replace five ministers who resigned in the space of 24 hours with rising stars from his Fianna Fail party.

The centrist party now faces a drubbing from voters angry that the former "Celtic Tiger" economy has been forced to seek a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund on Cowen`s watch.

"It is my intention, in due course, to seek a dissolution of Dail Eireann (Parliament) with a view to a general election taking place on Friday 11th March," Cowen told lawmakers after a stormy parliamentary session.

Cowen confirmed to RTE state television that John Gormley, the head of the Green party which is the junior partner in Cowen`s coalition government, had "vetoed" the appointment of any of the new ministers.

He said outstanding budget laws, which are key to the EUR 85 billion (USD 114 billion) bailout package agreed with the EU and IMF in November, would be passed before then "to secure Ireland`s economic future”.

The move comes after months of pressure on the 51-year-old Premier.

Cowen was forced to make a special appearance in Parliament on Thursday following a stormy session in which both the Green party and the opposition accused him of cynicism over the reshuffle plan.

It involved the resignations of five ministers who had all said they would not stand for re-election, and replacing them with members of his party so they could have a chance to establish themselves ahead of the election.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, Health Minister Mary Harney, Defence Minister Tony Killeen and Transport Minister Noel Dempsey stepped down on Wednesday and Enterprise Minister Batt O`Keefe followed suit on Thursday.

Their move followed that of Foreign Minister Micheal Martin earlier in the week, after Martin launched a failed bid to unseat Cowen.

But instead of naming replacements as he had planned, the Greens` move forced Cowen to re-assign their portfolios to other ministers. He has taken control of foreign affairs.

"It was our view, a very strong view, that this (the reshuffle) was a poor decision and it sent out all the wrong signals," said Gormley, who is also environment minister.

"The Irish people were suffering and they were furious and this would be the final insult."

Fianna Fail`s Sports and Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin hit out at her own party leader, saying she had approached Cowen Thursday to tell him "very, very strongly" that she was opposed to the replacement on ministers.

"I quite genuinely felt this was the wrong thing to do," Hanafin said.

Cowen initially agreed in November to hold an election after the budget laws were passed, following pressure from the Green Party.

The immediate future now looks bleak for Cowen and his party, with a Red C poll published last week showing public support for him at 10 percent, while just 14 percent of voters said they would back Fianna Fail.

Voters are particularly angry at the economic crisis that left the country crippled by debt-ridden banks, with Cowen also facing allegations that he is too close to the disgraced boss of Anglo Irish Bank.

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 the once vibrant economy.

But Cowen insisted his government`s policies had put Ireland on the path to recovery and economic growth, saying: "I want to get us through the hard times and see the country prosperous in the future."

Bureau Report