Irish senate passes bailout bill ahead of election

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 30 2011 08:17 AM | Updated as of Jan 30 2011 04:39 PM

DUBLIN – Ireland's upper house of parliament passed Saturday a key finance bill needed to secure the country's bailout package, paving the way for embattled Prime Minister Brian Cowen to call elections.

The budget, which hikes taxes and slashes spending as part of the price for the 67.5 billion euro ($91 billion) European Union-International Monetary Fund bailout, had already passed the lower house of parliament on Thursday.

"The finance bill now goes to the president for signing into law on Monday," a government spokesman said.

The bill passed by 30 votes to 20, state broadcaster RTE said. The lower house had been on standby to be recalled for an emergency sitting if the Senate recommended changes in the finance bill but there were none.

Cowen, who quit as leader of his Fianna Fail party a week ago and was forced to fast-track the bill through parliament, has said he will ask President Mary McAleese to dissolve parliament on Tuesday and call a general election.

The vote is expected on February 25.

Cowen's popularity has slumped since the government last November was forced to accept the EU-IMF bailout to stop the country going bankrupt.

Ireland is the second eurozone nation after Greece to seek a rescue.

He is leading a minority government after his ruling coalition fell apart earlier this month when the Green Party pulled out following a botched cabinet reshuffle attempt.

The crisis forced Cowen to quit as leader of the centrist Fianna Fail and abandon plans for a March 11 election.

The opposition insisted that he push through the finance bill to clear the way for elections or face a no-confidence vote.

Opposition leader Enda Kenny of the centre-right Fine Gael party told the European Union on Friday that he would renegotiate the bailout if, as expected, he becomes the new prime minister.

Under the conditions of the package, Dublin agreed to bring in tax and cost-cutting measures totalling 15 billion euros over the next four years and to bring the deficit down below 3.0 percent of GDP.

Two polls on Saturday showed Fianna Fail -- long the Irish republic's traditional party of government -- heading for the worst ever electoral defeat.

A MillwardBrown Lansdowne poll for the Sunday Independent and a Red C poll for the Sunday Business Post show the party far behind the expected next government, a coalition involving Fine Gael and the centre-left Labour party.

The Independent poll has Cowen's personal rating at 10 percent and dissatisfaction with the government at 95 percent, the highest ever.

It shows Fine Gael at 34 percent (up four points since the last MillwardBrown Lansdowne poll in September), with Labour down 11 at 24 percent and Fianna Fail at 16 percent, down six points.

In the Business Post poll Fine Gael is at 33 percent (down one point since the last Red C poll in December), Labour is at 21 percent (down two points) and Fianna Fail is 16 percent (down 1 point).

The Business Post said that if Fianna Fail get 16 percent in the election "it would see a massacre of its candidates and the party would be reduced to a small rump in the next Dail (parliament) of perhaps around 20 seats".

In the 2007 election Fianna Fail got 78 seats in the 166-seat house and the Business Post said the party was now, "by any standards, astonishingly unpopular".

Cowen, 51, said on Friday he would consult over the weekend with his family and advisers about whether to continue in politics.

He has borne the brunt of public anger over the collapse of an economy that was once so vibrant that it was dubbed "The Celtic Tiger".

But a banking crisis and property market meltdown pushed the country into a deep recession, eventually forcing its leaders to turn to the international community for financial support.