Greens walk out of doomed Irish coalition

The Dublin political world was in ferment yesterday as the junior partner in the doomed administration pulled its ministers out of government, forcing an earlier general election than had been scheduled.

In resigning, the Green Party's ministers said they had lost trust in their Fianna Fail partners. But rather than bring down the government immediately, the Greens will first co-operate with opposition parties to fast-track an important finance bill.

The Green Party leader, John Gormley, announced: "For a very long time we have stood back in the hope that Fianna Fail could resolve persistent doubts about their party leadership.

"A definitive resolution of this has not yet been possible and our patience has reached an end," he added. "Because of these continuing doubts, the lack of communication and the breakdown in trust, we have decided that we can no longer continue in government."

Brian Cowen, who on Saturday stepped down as leader of Fianna Fail – though not as Prime Minister – had set 11 March as the election date. But an earlier poll, probably in February, is now expected.

Mr Cowen stood down as party leader after suffering a disastrous self-inflicted wound when he sought to "refresh" his cabinet by hustling in five new ministers. While he designed this as a political "stroke", it was viewed as a crass move which alienated his own party and finally sealed his political fate.

During his bungled move, the Greens effectively vetoed his attempt to bring in new cabinet ministers, which meant he had to have some ministers double up in responsibilities. The Green's move yesterday means that, semi-comically, Fianna Fail ministers will now be required to take on even more responsibilities, if only until the election.

The public desire for an early election is palpable, but although it seems set to take place before 11 March, the exact date will depend on how quickly the finance bill can be ushered through the Dail. Talks are to open today involving the government, the Greens and opposition parties.

There is universal acceptance that the recent political convulsions have been damaging to the Irish Republic's reputation abroad, with much comment on the New York Times's use of the word "circus".

One politician said: "Our international reputation is being slaughtered out there." Another said he hoped the finance bill could be through by Friday, adding: "I don't want another weekend of this kind of uncertainty, where we're the subject of jokes and puns internationally." The next head of Fianna Fail is to be chosen on Wednesday in a secret ballot.

The three leading contenders are the former foreign minister Micheal Martin, the finance minister Brian Lenihan, and the culture minister Mary Hanafin. Mr Martin is very much the bookies' favourite, with the largest number of declared supporters from among Fianna Fail's Dail members who will make the choice.

Mr Martin, who has largely escaped blame for his party's economic mistakes, has been given credit for showing decisiveness during the moves to dislodge Mr Cowen and by resigning last week from the government. Mr Lenihan, who is suffering from cancer, was formerly the front-runner but has lost ground in recent weeks.

In announcing his candidature, he said his doctors had told him his tumour had reduced substantially and assured him he was "more than able" to act as leader.

One striking feature of the pitches of various Fianna Fail figures is the explicit recognition that their party, under whichever leader, is set for a dreadful election result. One contender said the party would need to be rebuilt "parish by parish".

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