After tumultuous week, Ireland hits fast track on rebuilding government

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen resigned as party leader, the ruling coalition collapsed, and six ministers quit. Some say the volatile week may actually help the country get back on its feet.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
Pedestrians walk past a security ramp outside Leinster House where the main political parties are meeting, in Dublin, Ireland Jan. 24. The opposition pressed the Irish government on Monday to bring forward the date of the next election, which would make Brian Cowen's coalition the first to fall victim to the eurozone debt crisis.

Ireland's ruling party has lost its chief, public confidence in the government is at an all-time-low, and a not fully approved financial bailout is sending jitters across Europe. But all this, analysts say, may be exactly what's necessary for the nation to start climbing back on its feet.

After the most volatile week in three years of turbulent politics, in which Prime Minister Brian Cowen resigned from the leadership of Fianna Fáil, six ministers resigned, and the ruling coalition fell apart, Ireland is now on the fast track to building a new government.

“The last two weeks have shown this parliament, this government, has run its course,” says Brian Lucey of Trinity College in Dublin.

The government's reputation is at a low, both among the Irish and the international community that has spent long hours negotiating an economic bailout for the defanged Celtic Tiger, he says, and an immediate election is necessary to clear the decks.

“The whole thing is shambolic and gives the indication that we cannot run our own governance,” says Professor Lucey.

Crashing down

The latest round of upheaval began Jan. 20, when six Fianna Fáil government ministers resigned their posts. That triggered Prime Minister Cowen’s resignation as party leader on Jan. 22. The next day, the Green Party, Fianna Fáil's junior partner, withdrew from the ruling coalition.

With the Greens pulling out, a further two ministers are gone and the executive has been more than halved, potentially leaving Fianna Fáil without the support necessary to pass a €67.5 billion ($91.5 billion) European Union-International Monetary Fund rescue package that was drawn up almost two months ago.

However, the Greens say they will continue to support Fianna Fáil's push to pass the long-awaited finance bill, which allows the final aspects of the controversial austerity budget and EU-IMF bailout to be signed into law. This could happen as soon as Friday, but it may be delayed for several weeks.

Cowen has called for an election on March 11, but polling could be as early as Feb. 25 if the Greens join other opposition parties in calling for an earlier vote.

More tough times ahead

Indeed, while Cowen says he will remain as prime minister until the next election, he may not see out the week.

A motion of no-confidence in the government, put forward by the Labour party and supported by the conservative Fine Gael party, has been called for Wednesday. Labour said today that it will consider dropping the no-confidence motion if the finance bill is passed by Friday.

The move is seen as a way for the opposition to peg the bill's unpopularity to Cowen while speeding up the election timeline.

“We just feel it’s better to finish this business and then go to the electorate,” the party’s finance spokeswoman Joan Burton told The Christian Science Monitor.

End of an era?

The high-level political intrigue is little more than further embarrassment for a country whose international reputation was already tarnished almost beyond comprehension.

Disbelief and resignation stalk the public consciousness: the ruling party is clearly not widely loved – but neither are the opposition parties.

“On the one hand, the government is making a mess of things while the opposition is just point scoring," says Sarah Byrne, a student teacher in Dublin. "If it wasn't for the fact that I don't like to waste my vote, I'd not vote for any of them."

It’s a widespread sentiment. Willie McTiernan, an information technology contractor who lives in Kilkenny, says the government’s rapid but fitful decline has been bad: “It’s a question of ‘What can you say?’ It’s a total embarrassment.”

Mr. McTiernan welcomes the end of the current era, but not with high hopes for the future: “Most people just want an election but it’s not as though the opposition offers any great hope,” he says.

Fall of Fianna Fáil

Centrist Fianna Fáil, which will choose its new leader Wednesday, has been widely blamed for causing Ireland’s economic crash. The harsh medicine it has doled out to remedy the situation has only made the party more unpopular.

The party is now in disarray.

“We’re now facing a hammering [at the election], not the total meltdown of the party,” says Ken Curtin, a Fianna Fáil supporter and secretary of his local branch in Cork.

His party colleague in County Kildare, James Lawless, feels similarly: “It’s certainly going to be a very difficult election – I wouldn’t be very optimistic. Brian Cowen was a fundamentally good man [but] a bad leader in that he didn’t do media and he didn’t do spin.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.