Irish premier forced to announce March 11 election

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.

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. Staring likely election defeat in the face, 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 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. 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 Cowen's coalition partners in government, the Green Party. Cowen spent the morning pleading with the Greens to back the election of new Cabinet ministers, but they refused and demanded that he set an election date, as they have demanded since November. Cowen relented in a humiliating climbdown.

Green leader John Gormley, who is Cowen's environment minister, said he was baffled as to why Cowen believed he would receive Green support for his doomed maneuver.

"We could not have been clearer. We said it in the most unequivocal fashion," Gormley said, referring to a series of behind-the-scenes talks this week during which Cowen floated the idea of refreshing Fianna Fail's Cabinet lineup.

Gormley said his consistent message to Cowen was: "This is not a good idea, it would send out all the wrong signals, the Irish people are suffering and are furious, and this would be the final insult."

When Cowen finally appeared in parliament, he appointed five current Cabinet ministers to take over the five just-vacated departments until parliament is dissolved in mid-February.

The move avoided the need for a parliamentary vote that Cowen was sure to lose. While politicians being promoted to Cabinet require majority support from parliament, those already at the Cabinet table can receive extra posts without a vote.

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

They said his actions caused easily avoidable damage to Fianna Fail, the hearty perennial of Irish politics. The party, whose name in Gaelic means "soldiers of destiny," has won the most seats in parliament since 1932 and governed Ireland almost continuously since 1987 — but polls indicate that, this time, it could plummet to third or fourth place.

"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 Cowen's remaining Cabinet ministers, Mary Hanifan, said her leader had shown inexplicably bad judgment. Hanifan, who is already the minister for tourism, culture and sport, was assigned the additional post of enterprise, trade and innovation.

Hanifan, a potential leadership rival to 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."

Kitt said some Fianna Fail lawmakers were privately joking that 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 Cowen's statement to parliament.

Cowen denied that his plan to replace Cabinet ministers with new, young lawmakers was a pre-election stunt — provoking a roar of disbelief and catcalls from the opposition benches.

Cowen's personal popularity has plunged as Ireland's debts and unemployment surged. His term was 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.

Still, until Thursday, Cowen had been clinging to hopes of delaying that election until April or May, in hopes that the economy would rebound by then and revive Fianna Fail's chances at the polls.

Instead, Gormley seized on Cowen's weakness to demand an early March election date — sufficient time, he argued, for parliament to pass the next round of income-tax hikes at the heart of Ireland's latest austerity measures.

Cowen survived a confidence vote Tuesday among Fianna Fail lawmakers, but some called for a renewed push to oust him, citing his disastrous mismanagement of the reshuffle.

"It would be in the best interests of the party if Brian Cowen moved on because it is not working out," said Conor Lenihan, the government's science minister and younger brother to Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.

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 euro67.5 billion ($91 billion) bailout loan with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

So far Ireland has received euro5 billion ($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 Labour, 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," Labour 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."

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.

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 euro50 billion ($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.

Cowen's government has already imposed nearly euro15 billion ($20 billion) in spending cuts and tax hikes since 2008 on this nation of 4.5 million people. It has published a plan for euro15 billion more over the coming four years.

Fine Gael and Labour 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.