FitzGerald ouster may change political picture in Ulster
Dublin — The collapse of Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald's coalition government has thrown Irish politics into turmoil.
It has also raised questions about relations with Britain and Northern Ireland.
In the end it was economics that brought the government down. Dr. FitzGerald's resignation came after his proposal to the Irish parliament to buttress the country's ailing economy by a stiff package of budgetary measures was defeated.
New elections are scheduled for Feb. 18.
Though FitzGerald's fall stems from an economic cause, its political effects, and the differing styles of FitzGerald and former Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey, the opposition leader, on such sensitive issues as the future of Northern Ireland are being watched with concern.
Dr. FitzGerald believes Northern Ireland's Protestants have to be wooed into a dialogue with Dublin to work out a new future together, guided and assisted by the British government which governs Ulster.
To this end Dr. FitzGerald has been proposing changes in the Irish Republic's Constitution to make it more agreeable to Protestants in Northern Ireland. He wants to remove any claim over Northern Ireland and to erradicate any laws that are seen by Protestants to bolster a Roman Catholic ethos in the South.
Mr. Haughey not only opposes constitutional change but also believes a deal can be worked out between Dublin and London over the heads of the deadlocked politicians in Northern Ireland.
He believes once a new form of government for Northern Ireland has been outlined and a new relationship established between Britain and the Irish Republic, the Northern Ireland politicians, Protestant and Roman Catholic, will agree on a conference to work out a final settlement for a united Ireland.
But that is seen as a pious hope in London. British ministers fear that if Mr. Haughey is returned to power, he will be much more strident in his demands than Dr. FitzGerald.
They believe he will demand a new Anglo-Irish parliamentary forum as his price for cooperation over Northern Ireland.
Dr. FitzGerald's economic proposals, which lost by a vote of 82-81, included hefty increases in the tax on tobacco and spirits. They also included a motor tax, and a value added tax on a wide range of consumer goods.
This was too much for the Irish parliament's ''gentle giant,'' Jim Kemmy. The former bricklayer from Limerick climbed the Dail chamber's steps and walked through hushed opposition deputies to end the suspense and topple Dr. FitzGerald's government.
Then a stony-faced FitzGerald announced he was asking for the Dail to be dissolved. Within two hours he was telling the nation he would put his budget proposals to the test at another general election.
Dr. FitzGerald claimed he had inherited a terrifying legacy of foreign debt from Mr. Haughey, saying: ''Living with it has been a nightmare.''
Ireland's problem is that in recent years spectacular economic growth has largely been financed by European loans and foreign banks. Dr. FitzGerald revealed that 75 percent of the country's income tax was now going to pay off the interest on those loans.
The general election will be a test of the country's resolve to tackle its economic problems.
Dr. FitzGerald has laid out his cure -- financial stringency for several years to come and the certainty of increased unemployment and no sign of inflation coming down. Inflation currently runs at 23 percent.
Mr. Haughey, on the other hand, says Dr. FitzGerald's claims are exaggerated. He says Ireland's credit rating abroad is excellent and claims Dr. FitzGerald has led the nation astray with talk of foreign borrowing.
Another big question mark over the general election in the Irish Republic is how prominent a role the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) will play.
The IRA's political leaders, represented by Sinn Fein, are likely to contest several seats. They won two last summer during the republican prisoners' hunger strike in Northern Ireland.
Although the hunger strike has ended and tensions have eased generally, political observers here say the IRA will raise the temperature again to rouse support for their cause.
Whether they have the emotional support generated by last year's hunger strike remains to be seen.
But they have enormous sums of money at their disposal, money collected largely in the United States in recent months.
Several fringe parties stand to benefit from the crisis in Ireland. Dr. FitzGerald's coalition partners in the Labour Party are still licking their wounds after being badly mauled in last year's election.
Their supporters may turn to more left-wing parties after Labour has shown in government that it was prepared to sanction savage tax increases and reductions in benefits.
One political observer commented: ''Irish politicians are like race horses. . . . They show an amazing alacrity to fall flat on their backs when you least expect it.''