Irish government falls and calls 11 March poll

Fianna Fail fears painful defeat after mass cabinet resignations

The Irish Government collapsed yesterday, with multiple ministerial resignations propelling Prime Minister Brian Cowen into setting 11 March as the date for a general election. His Fianna Fail party, which dominates the government, is widely expected to be largely wiped out in the contest, since under the Cowen leadership it has slumped to unprecedented depths in opinion polls.

When he took over as Prime Minister in 2008 he had already built a reputation as a heavyweight bruiser who had mastered his previous brief as minister for finance. But as the months passed, the economic policies he had helped to formulate came to be seen as ruinous, and he looked incapable of dealing with problems which became mountainous.

In recent months he was damaged by "Garglegate", when he was judged to have performed badly in a morning radio interview after a late night of drinking with journalists and others. Next came "Golfgate" when we learnt that as finance minister he had played golf and had dinner with the banker Sean Fitzpatrick, regarded as possibly Ireland's most toxic figure, since he above all others is blamed for the economic disaster.

Many Fianna Fail members of the Dail, the Irish parliament, have announced they are not standing again, because they are unlikely to be re-elected or because they realise they will face years in opposition.

The election was precipitated during a day of turmoil after the small Green party, which has kept Fianna Fail in power, called for a contest in March. Four Fianna Fail ministers, plus a long-time supporter, then announced their resignations. In what is viewed in Dublin as an extraordinary move, Mr Cowen then redistributed their portfolios with some of his remaining ministers taking on extra responsibilities. Mary Hanafin, for example, has become Minister for Trade, Enterprise, Innovation, Tourism, Culture and Sport.

Mr Cowen has clung to power with great determination but these and other recent blows are combining to prise his tenacious fingers from the levers of power. His administration has for months shown signs of steady disintegration, with senior members and backbenchers making it clear they believed Mr Cowen's days in office were numbered.

Last year, under intense pressure, he was forced to promise an election early this year after legislation enacting December's tough budget. But since then the possibility of an early contest has slipped, with the most recent rumours suggesting the date could be in April. In the meantime, Mr Cowen has adopted almost a bunker mentality, apparently intent on buying time on an almost day-to-day basis.

This ultra-defensive strategy has brought no revival in the fortunes of his party, which has traditionally been the largest in the Irish Republic but recently hit a record low of 13 per cent in the opinion polls.

This has led to predictions that Fianna Fail could drop from more than 70 seats to fewer than 20, a result which would represent a seismic change in Ireland's political patterns. There are certainly obvious signs of a widespread loss of public confidence in Fianna Fail. A disaffected backbencher said recently: "The people just don't trust us. We got arrogant and got disconnected and wouldn't listen. The people are very angry and you can't blame them."

The next question is whether Mr Cowen will achieve his wish of leading his party into the election, given that much of his cabinet has resigned in an apparently concerted move.

The hurriedly arranged stopgap ministerial appointments were one element in a day of undignified turmoil for the government. Yesterday Conor Lenihan, a government minister whose brother Brian is a contender for the party leadership, said Mr Cowen's authority and credibility had been eroded and he should resign. Fianna Fail supporters were looking on in horror at what was happening, he added.

Although many politicians would long ago have given up and retired from the fray, the Cowen combination of stubbornness and aggression means he has stood his ground.

His administration was forced to turn to the IMF and EU for a bailout because it could not cope with Ireland's economic woes. Mr Cowen suffered much self-inflicted damage when, until the last moment, he maintained that no such bailout was being sought, cementing his reputation as Ireland's great non-communicator.