Irish voters take revenge for economic woes

The Irish government had a disastrous night, looking unlikely to keep the single European seat it held in Dublin, as the electorate delivered a damning verdict on its handling of the economic crisis.

The major opposition parties were rampant after support for the ruling coalition, headed by Fianna Fail, slumped dramatically across the Republic. This followed an equally woeful showing by the left-of-centre party in local council polls and in two by-elections for the Irish parliament.

The centre-right Fine Gael, which has been unable to overtake Fianna Fail for almost a century, took most votes and immediately announced it would table a vote of no confidence in the government this week.

While the results may signal huge changes in Irish domestic politics, they also raise questions about the Lisbon Treaty. It was rejected by the Irish public in a referendum last year and goes before voters in a re-run this autumn. Although all three largest parties will be campaigning in favour of the treaty, and early returns last night showed a leading opponent, Declan Ganley, unlikely to win a seat in Brussels, Fianna Fail looked to have lost its Dublin seat to the Eurosceptics. Its coalition partners, the Green Party, suffered a near-wipeout in local elections, with its vote plummeting in Dublin. This poor showing raises the question of whether it will remain part of a deeply unpopular government. One Green Party minister said: "We're highly disappointed. We're licking our wounds at the moment."

In the immediate aftermath of Fianna Fail's worst performance in a generation, attention will focus on the possibility of internal challenges to its leader, Prime Minister Brian Cowen. Last night he maintained that he was unaware of any potential challenge to his position, saying: "I haven't heard from any critical voices from anyone at the moment" while acknowledging "a poor result".

Fianna Fail will want at all costs to avoid a general election since its low standing would almost certainly propel it from office. But Mr Cowen's personal standing is even lower, which could cause some backbenchers to wonder about replacing him.

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