Ireland’s Green Party quits government, Demands election sooner

Ireland’s Green Party withdrew Sunday from the Irish government, raising pressure for Prime Minister Brian Cowen to resign from office and for Ireland to hold a national election sooner than March 11 as planned.

Green Party leader John Gormley

Green Party leader John Gormley

DUBLIN, Ireland — Ireland’s Green Party withdrew Sunday from the Irish government, raising pressure for Prime Minister Brian Cowen to resign from office and for Ireland to hold a national election sooner than March 11 as planned.

Green leader John Gormley said his small party — critical for the survival of Cowen’s coalition government — would immediately join the opposition side of the parliament.

Gormley stressed that his lawmakers would support the last essential deficit-fighting measure facing a parliamentary vote, the 2011 Finance Bill, but then would require an election date be set for sometime in February.

“The Irish people want to see political certainty, economic certainty, and they do want an election,” said Gormley, whose environmentalist party joined the Irish government in 2007.

Ireland’s coalition government has been heading for collapse since November, when Cowen was forced to negotiate a C67.5 billion ($91 billion) loan agreement with the European Union and International Monetary Fund to prevent national bankruptcy.

The Greens announced at that time they would leave the government, sinking it, as soon as all legislation linked to the bailout was passed.

They and opposition parties have grown frustrated at Cowen’s slow rollout of the Finance Bill, which will aggressively raise income taxes to combat Ireland’s Europe-leading deficit.

It was published Friday afternoon, whereas other bailout-linked bills were passed rapidly more than a month ago.

“Our patience has reached an end,” said Gormley, who called on Cowen’s Fianna Fail party to agree to accelerate passage of the Finance Bill as the government’s dying act.

Cowen said his shrinking government intended to negotiate a timetable Monday with opposition lawmakers.

But he said it would be impossible to meet opposition demands for the entire bill to be debated, amended and passed into law by Friday.

He ruled out resigning as prime minister before that legislation becomes law.

“It’s important that we get the Finance Bill through, and we need a government to do that,” said Cowen, who did resign Saturday as leader of Fianna Fail. The party, which has won the most seats in parliament in every election since 1932, is expected this time to suffer a crushing defeat.

Sunday’s Green withdrawal means Cowen lost two more Cabinet ministers: Environment Minister Gormley and Communications Minister Eamon Ryan. Cowen has only seven of 15 Cabinet ministers remaining — the bare minimum permitted by Ireland’s constitution — following his disastrous management of an attempted Cabinet reshuffle last week.

The two major opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, are threatening to force a no-confidence vote in parliament this week against Cowen unless he promises to get the Finance Bill passed by Friday.

Labour, which currently has a no-confidence motion listed for debate Tuesday, said it had no intention of backing down unless Cowen commits to dissolving the parliament for an election by Friday.

“We think it is eminently feasible to conclude the Finance Bill by the end of the week. I don’t see us moving from that,” Labour lawmaker Pat Rabbitte said.

“Fianna Fail will have to stop procrastinating and say: It’s over. We don’t want another weekend of this uncertainty,” Rabbitte said.

“We need to let battle be joined, let the people decide, and let a government that has the prospect of four or five years in office be elected.”

Gormley appealed to Fine Gael and Labour to hold fire until the Finance Bill is passed by the fastest responsible means possible.

“We do need some certainty around the Finance Bill. It does need to pass. It’s genuinely in the national interest that that happens,” Gormley said.

The loss of support from six Green lawmakers means Cowen can no longer muster a parliamentary majority. If he lost a confidence vote, he would be obliged to resign immediately and dissolve parliament for an election campaign that would last three to four weeks.

All sides agreed that the Green decision means the March 11 election date announced last week by Cowen is null and void. Analysts said a new election date, most likely in the second half of February, would be pinpointed this week.

Fianna Fail has formed governments following the last six governments dating to 1987, but its age of dominance is facing an inglorious end. The party’s support has plummeted from typical percentages in the 40s to a series of record lows. A Sunday newspaper poll put Fianna Fail’s nationwide support at just 8 per cent.