Irish lawmakers agree deal for February election

Ireland's government and opposition chiefs reached an agreement Monday that will allow lawmakers to rush a critical tax-raising bill through parliament so that Ireland's government can be dissolved next week for a national election in late February.

The breakthrough followed a week of political calamities for Prime Minister Brian Cowen, who botched a Cabinet reshuffle, resigned as leader of the Fianna Fail party, and finally lost his parliamentary majority when his coalition partners defected to the opposition.

Last week's humiliation forced Cowen to call an early election for March 11. But Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who led Monday's negotiations, said the agreement means parliament will be dissolved by Tuesday, Feb. 1, and the election date will be moved to late February.

"It's important for the country that we are seen to unite at least in dealing with this measure," Lenihan said of the Finance Bill, which will broadly raise income taxes to combat Ireland's double-digit deficit.

Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said she was confident the election would be held Friday, Feb. 25. As part of the accord, Labour and the other major opposition party, Fine Gael, agreed to postpone their threats to call no-confidence motions in Cowen and his minority government.

Burton said the opposition would seek to oust Cowen only if the prime minister refuses, when parliament reconvenes a final time on Tuesday, Feb. 1, to dissolve it. She said a no-confidence vote against Cowen now was "unlikely to arise."

The Finance Bill is the final legislative commitment that Ireland must pass as part of its November negotiation of an international loan facility that could reach euro67.5 billion ($91 billion). So far Ireland has taken euro5 billion ($6.7 billion) in loans.

Earlier, politicians from the small nationalist Sinn Fein party stormed out of the talks protesting at the agreement taking shape inside Lenihan's Department of Finance headquarters.

Sinn Fein lawmaker Pearse Doherty — whose party opposes the government's entire austerity program and wanted parliament dissolved before the Finance Bill is passed — described the other parties' agreement as "nothing short of disgusting."

Cowen lost his parliamentary majority Sunday when Fianna Fail's coalition partner, the Green Party, announced they had run out of patience with his leadership and defected to the opposition.

Green leaders said their six lawmakers would vote to pass the Finance Bill — but weren't committed to backing Cowen. The Greens reaffirmed Monday that, should Cowen refuse to dissolve parliament next week, they would immediately back Labour and Fine Gael no-confidence motions, forcing Cowen's hand.

Cowen suffered a crushing defeat Thursday when he tried to reshuffle his Cabinet to promote Fianna Fail election candidates, but the Greens stopped him. The botched maneuver meant he lost five Cabinet ministers but couldn't replace any of them. He lost two more ministers Sunday with the Greens' withdrawal, leaving him with only seven ministers to run 15 departments.

Pat Rabbitte, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour, said before Monday's talks that his party wasn't prepared "to let what's left of the government survive for 5 minutes longer than is absolutely necessary."