Election required as soon as possible


THE NEED for a general election at the earliest possible opportunity has increased, rather than diminished, in the aftermath of the Budget. There should be no question of a long, drawn-out debate on the Finance Bill in the New Year or waiting until special legislation on climate change or corporate donations has been adopted. The sooner the electorate is given an opportunity to shape the political future of this State, the better. We are at debt’s door and it is simply not good enough to revert to party politics.

On Wednesday, relief at the passage of budgetary measures gave rise to a renewed tug-of-war between the Green Party and Fianna Fáil over the timing of the general election. Concern about the “national interest” gave way to political horse-trading as Green Party Ministers attempted to have their priority legislation passed before the Dáil broke up. Fianna Fáil Ministers responded that the price would be a delayed general election. After some overnight dithering, Green Party chairman Dan Boyle announced yesterday that his party remained committed to calling an election towards the end of January.

Fianna Fáil has been undergoing parallel convulsions, in the aftermath of appalling opinion poll results. Last week, worried members were determined to replace Brian Cowen as party leader, even if that meant he would remain on as Taoiseach until the Finance Bill had passed. The pressure came off when Micheál Martin, Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin indicated quietly to their supporters that this was not the time for a leadership challenge. A reinvigorated Mr Cowen announced he would lead Fianna Fáil into the election. And he delivered one of his more abrasive Dáil performances when he attacked the leaders of Fine Gael and the Labour Party and defended the Budget.

The Taoiseach is living on borrowed time. The Budget, which hits the least well off hardest, is such a poisoned chalice that no potential successor was prepared to accept ownership of it. Instead, Mr Cowen will be required to carry that opprobrium on to the backbenches after the election, along with his record as minister for finance. As for who his replacement may be, a decision by Mary O’Rourke to withdraw her demand for a changing of the guard in January may reflect a strategic reassessment.

This is the second occasion on which Fianna Fáil has attempted to push the election date into March. Its TDs are desperately worried about losing their seats. Party strategists obviously believe a delayed contest might help if they can exploit differences between Fine Gael and the Labour Party. The central issue is not about party advantage. Nothing has changed since John Gormley publicly acknowledged, two weeks ago, that the public had lost faith in the Government because of the manner in which it had handled fiscal issues. Loss of economic independence and the arrival of officials from the International Monetary Fund and EU only cemented that view. If Fianna Fáil refuses to go in January, the Green Party will have no option but to do its duty.