DUBLIN - Ireland's parties held crisis talks on Monday after the ruling coalition collapsed, with the opposition demanding that the government quickly pass a crucial finance bill and bring forward elections.
Opposition parties gave embattled Prime Minister Brian Cowen a deadline of Friday to comply or to face a no-confidence vote, following the dramatic withdrawal of the Green party from the coalition on Sunday. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was leading the talks over calls for Cowen to push through the finance bill needed to secure a European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout that Ireland asked for in November.
Michael Noonan, finance spokesman for the main opposition Fine Gael party, said Ireland was "lurching from crisis to crisis" and an early election was needed "some time in February" to restore confidence.
Cowen just last week called elections on March 11 but was forced to resign as leader of his Fianna Fail party on Saturday. Fianna Fail, the traditional party of government, is now ruling with a parliamentary minority.
But with financial markets jittery over the political crisis in the second eurozone nation to receive a bailout after Greece last year, Noonan said they would give Cowen parliamentary time this week to pass the austerity bill. "With our low reputation in Europe it would be preferable if it could be passed provided it is not used as a delaying tactic by Fianna Fail," Noonan told RTE state radio.
"If the Taoiseach (prime minister) comes out and says we will have the election in the end of February, on the 18th or the 25th or on some day in between, then it will be very easy to draw up an appropriate schedule for the finance bill," he added.
He said the bailout, worth some 67 billion euros (90 billion dollars) in international funds, was necessary to pay public servants and run the country. Labour party finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said the "critical thing" is that the government has to bring the election date forward.
But Lenihan said earlier it was "not realistic" to pass the law in just a week.
"We do need a tight timetable, I accept that. I will hear what the opposition have to say this afternoon. I will set out for them the practical difficulties," Lenihan said. Nominations for the race to succeed Cowen as Fianna Fail leader close on Monday and a vote is expected on Wednesday.
The favourite is former foreign minister Micheal Martin, at odds of 1-7, according to Paddy Power bookmakers, with Lenihan at 4-1, social protection minister Eamon O Cuiv at 16-1 and sports minister Mary Hanafin at 20-1. Martin resigned as foreign minister after he launched a failed leadership bid against Cowen last Tuesday.
But Cowen's attempt to use Martin's departure and five other apparently coordinated cabinet resignations to force a reshuffle backfired badly and led to him quitting as party leader. The Green party vetoed any new reappointments and pressured Cowen into announcing the March 11 general election date. Two days later he quit as leader of his party, which he has led since becoming premier in May 2008.