The Beginning of the End for Ireland's Ruling Party

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Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen prepares to announce his resignation as Fianna Fail leader in Dublin, Jan. 22, 2011

If the maxim that a week is a long time in politics ever needed proof, then you just have to look at the events of the past seven days in the Irish government.

Ireland woke up Monday to a political establishment in chaos. Brian Cowen had quit as party head of Ireland's once dominant Fianna Fail on Saturday but stayed on as Prime Minister, or Taoiseach. The following day, the party's junior coalition partners, the Greens, announced they were leaving the government with immediate effect. The defection means that a total of seven ministers have resigned in as many days, leaving the Cabinet with just seven others — the minimum allowed under the Irish constitution.

Now all that stands between the Irish people and the long-awaited general election is the passing of a finance bill that would bring into law the first of a series of austerity measures laid out over the next four years, a requirement of the $92 billion emergency bailout by the E.U. and International Monetary Fund announced in November.

The European Commission showed its hand when it intervened before an emergency meeting on Monday aimed at agreeing to a timetable for the passage of the bill, saying it was "crucial" for Ireland to pass the legislation. "It is important for Ireland's stability and credibility that this finance bill is passed soon," said Amadeu Altafaj, spokesman for E.U. economic affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn. "The finance bill is crucial to ensuring the 2011 budget is implemented as it was agreed in the E.U.-IMF program."

With the Labour Party threatening a motion of no confidence — which could have led to the fall of the now minority government — if it didn't get the speeded-up timetable it wanted, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens on Monday agreed to fast-track the finance bill, a move that Sinn Fein and the newly formed United Left Alliance oppose. The bill will now be debated in the Dail — the lower house of the Irish Parliament — with the intention that it will pass all stages by Friday. After that, it will go to the upper house, the Seanad, for approval. Once that happens, it will signal the dissolution of the Dail within days.

Political commentator Ivan Yates, a former Fine Gael minister, says Monday's agreement represents a "quid pro quo," allowing Fianna Fail to bring about the measures it says are vital for economic recovery while also giving the opposition the election it badly wants.

"It is a satisfactory way of proceeding — Fianna Fail gets to pass the finance bill and the opposition get the earliest election date possible," Yates says, adding that the shrunken Cabinet has left the country in "political paralysis." Like many observers, he believes the most likely date for an election will be Feb. 25. "I would expect a new government to convene in the second week in March, in time for the new Taoiseach to go to the White House on St. Patrick's Day," he says, referring to the tradition of when a new Irish Prime Minister meets the U.S. President and hands him a bowl of shamrocks to establish relations between the two leaders.

The beginning of the end of Ireland's coalition government came on Thursday. Cowen had called for a Cabinet reshuffle to fill the positions left open by resigning ministers, but the Greens blocked the new appointments, forcing the Prime Minister to instead double up his remaining ministers' portfolios. This was seen as an embarrassing climbdown for Cowen, and by the end of the day there were rumblings of discontent among his Fianna Fail colleagues. On Jan. 18, Fianna Fail members had passed a motion of confidence in their leader — but 48 hours later, Cowen's future as party leader was again at risk.

After two days of defiance in the face of calls for his resignation from serving and former party members, Cowen on Saturday announced he was quitting as Fianna Fail party leader, but would remain on as Prime Minister. Then came the Green Party press briefing on Sunday, at which they said they were leaving the government. "Our patience has reached an end," Green leader John Gormley said, adding, "The Irish people have begun to lose confidence in politics and in the political process."

On Wednesday, Fianna Fail will hold a leadership contest to see who will succeed Cowen, former Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin or one of three ministers still in office — Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, Mary Hanafin (Minister of Tourism and now Enterprise) or Social Protection Minister Eamon O'Cuiv, who has also just been appointed as Defense Minister. Whoever wins, they face the prospect of an early election in which their party could see virtual annihilation. What was once the most dominant political party in the history of the Irish state — it has been in power for much of its 85-year history — has now seen its support completely collapse in the polls, the latest of which shows the party at an all-time low of just 8%.

The Fianna Fail party can now only look forward to what is sure to be another incredibly long week in politics, and the ever increasing certainty that it will no longer be in power by the end of it.