- Associated Press - Thursday, January 20, 2011

DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland will hold early elections March 11, Prime Minister Brian Cowen was forced to announce Thursday after bungling a surprise attempt to promote several lawmakers to the Cabinet.

Mr. Cowen’s Fianna Fail party has fallen to record-low levels of support after leading the country from the Celtic Tiger boom to the edge of bankruptcy. Adding to the sense of chaos, the prime minister managed to bring his own administration to the brink of collapse Thursday through an ill-calculated bid to inject his Cabinet with fresh blood.

Five ministers — a third of Mr. Cowen’s Cabinet — resigned from the departments of defense, justice, health, transport and trade between Wednesday night and Thursday morning because they were not planning to seek re-election. Mr. Cowen hoped to promote five new lawmakers in their place to boost their pre-election profiles.

But the gambit provoked fury in parliament and a backlash from Mr. Cowen’s coalition partners in government, the environmentalist Green Party. Mr. Cowen spent the morning pleading with the Greens to back the election of the new Cabinet ministers but they refused and demanded that he set an election date.

When Mr. Cowen finally appeared in parliament, he appointed five current Cabinet ministers to take on the additional departments for the next few weeks before parliament is dissolved in mid-February. The move avoided the need for a parliamentary vote that Mr. Cowen was sure to lose.

Fianna Fail lawmakers expressed dismay that their leader hadn’t seen the Green opposition coming.

They said his actions have hurt the party — which has won the most seats in parliament since 1932 and governed Ireland almost continuously since 1987 — even more, just before an election it is universally expected to lose.

“I’m really infuriated by what’s happened. … Whatever his great plan was, it has totally backfired,” said Fianna Fail lawmaker Tom Kitt. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Even one of Mr. Cowen’s remaining Cabinet ministers, Mary Hanifan, said her leader had shown bad judgment in attempting to promote junior Fianna Fail politicians so soon before an election. Ms. Hanifan, who is already the minister for tourism, culture and sport, was assigned the additional post of enterprise, trade and innovation.

Ms. Hanifan, a potential leadership rival to Mr. Cowen, described his effort to put raw, young politicians into Cabinet posts for a few short weeks simply to boost their electoral profiles was “quite genuinely a cynical move.”

Mr. Kitt said some Fianna Fail lawmakers were privately joking that Mr. Cowen had been calling around Thursday trying to offer them Cabinet posts — but they’d switched off their cell phones to avoid him.

Underscoring the tensions in Ireland’s coalition government, the Greens’ six lawmakers boycotted Mr. Cowen’s statement to parliament.

Mr. Cowen denied that his plan to replace Cabinet ministers with new, young lawmakers was a pre-election stunt — provoking a deafening uproar in the parliament.

Mr. Cowen has survived a series of confidence votes over the past year as his personal popularity plunged as Ireland’s debts and unemployment surged. His term is supposed to run to mid-2012, but in November he conceded the need for an early election after the Greens announced they intended soon to withdraw support.

Until Thursday, Mr. Cowen had been clinging to hopes of delaying the election until April or May, in hopes that the economy would rebound by then. Greens demanded an early March date — sufficient time, they argued, for parliament to pass the next round of income-tax hikes at the heart of Ireland’s latest austerity measures.

Mr. Cowen, a gruff and combative speaker who previously was Ireland’s finance minister, gained the top job in 2008 right at the moment that Ireland’s 13-year Celtic Tiger economic boom was giving way to a property-market implosion and banking crisis.

Ireland since has nationalized four of the six Irish-owned banks and repaid tens of billions to foreign bondholders. It spent two years trying to fund the bank bailouts itself, but the cost drove Ireland’s 2010 deficit to 32 percent of gross domestic product and forced the country in November to negotiate a 67.5 billion-euro ($91 billion) bailout loan with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

So far Ireland has received 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion) of those funds.

The two opposition parties expected to win the March 11 election and form the next coalition government, the center-ground Fine Gael and left-wing Labor, have pledged to reopen negotiations with the EU and IMF. They say the average interest rate, 5.8 percent, is too high and will leave Ireland unable to climb back into solvency.

“We have seen too much damage done to our country over the past few years. Too much damage done to the livelihoods and hopes of families and people all over this country,” Labor leader Eamon Gilmore said outside parliament, surrounded by party deputies. “It’s time to restore hope, to bring about recovery, to take our country back from those who have stolen it from us.”

Mr. Gilmore denounced the EU-IMF aid package as “a bad deal” that placed all the financial burden on Irish taxpayers rather than the foreign banks and hedge funds that loaned tens of billions to Irish banks.

Mr. Cowen has resisted making foreign banks share more of the losses at Irish banks, arguing this would amount to a national default and spook lenders. The current estimated bill for Dublin bank bailouts is 50 billion euros ($67 billion), about a third of Ireland’s GDP.

Ireland withdrew from the bond market last year when the cost of borrowing soared over 7 percent in expectation of a default. Irish banks grew dangerously reliant on short-term loans from the European Central Bank, which put pressure on Ireland to accept an international rescue. Cowen kept denying that Ireland needed one even as EU and IMF financial experts arrived in Dublin in mid-November, a position that angered Cabinet colleagues.

Mr. Cowen’s government has already imposed nearly 15 billion euros ($20 billion) in spending cuts and tax hikes since 2008 on this nation of 4.5 million people. It has published a plan for 15 billion euros more over the coming four years.

Fine Gael and Labor both have pledged to support that deficit-fighting goal but disagree on how to achieve it: Labour wants even higher taxes, Fine Gael even more brutal cuts.

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