New York Times on Fianna Fail and its feckless self-absorbed pathetic chaos.

Irish Prime Minister Calls for Early Elections

Published: January 20, 2011

LONDON — Brian Cowen, the embattled Irish prime minister, on Thursday announced an earlier-than-expected general election for March 11, the latest development in a political meltdown for the governing Fianna Fail party.

Battered in the opinion polls after in the wake of last month’s $114 billion bailout for Ireland’s debt-burdened economy, the party is widely expected to be ousted from power, perhaps by a humiliating margin, in the March vote.

The party’s prospects appeared to have been further damaged in recent days by events that have had more than a tinge of political farce. For Fianna Fail, which has held the largest bloc of seats in Parliament continuously since 1932, dominating Irish politics for most of the history of the Irish Republic, the recent infighting within the party has been one of the most embarrassing episodes in its history.

The latest dramas began last week, when Mr. Cowen announced that he would resist growing calls for his resignation, prompting six of his ministers — more than a third of his cabinet — to resign. The first to go was the foreign minister, Micheal Martin, who left on Sunday and declared himself a candidate to succeed Mr. Cowen as party leader and head of government. On Wednesday night, the Fianna Fail ministers of defense, health, justice, trade and transport also resigned, saying they did not plan to contest the forthcoming election.

Mr. Cowen responded by letting it be known that he planned to fill the cabinet vacancies with a group of younger, little-known Fianna Fail lawmakers who, he told aides, would convince voters that the party was rebuilding, and fit for another term in office. But that plan collapsed when the Green Party, junior partners in the coalition that took office after the last election in 2007, refused to support the shuffle.

That forced Mr. Cowen to announce on Thursday that he would redistribute the vacant portfolios among surviving cabinet ministers — a process in which he had already awarded himself the joint posts of prime minister and foreign minister, in succession to the popular and well-regarded Mr. Martin. By committing the government to serve on a caretaker basis until the March 11 election date, he fast-forwarded his earlier plan for a late March vote, a date he had hoped would allow more time for the beginnings of an economic recovery.

“I want us to get through the hard times and see the country is prosperous in the future,” he said as he announced the election date.

The opposition leader Enda Kenny of the Fine Gael party was dismissive, both of the prime minister’s strained tone of optimism and of his bungled cabinet reshuffle. “It’s another fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into,” Mr. Kenny said.

The sequence of events appeared to have made Mr. Cowen, 51, a figure of contempt to many in his own party. “I’ve been in the Dail for 23 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” one Fianna Fail lawmaker, Tim Kitt, told RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, referring to the Irish Parliament. “There is a total disconnect between the leadership of my party and the public out there. People are rightly very upset.”

For others, Mr. Cowen, a short, heavyset man with a bruising political style who is known among his Irish detractors by the nickname Biffo, has become something of a laughingstock. Irish newspapers have had a field day with the revelation that in 2008 he played a round of golf with Sean FitzPatrick, then the chairman of the Anglo Irish Bank, only a few weeks before the Irish financial crisis broke. That was one of four Irish-owned banks the government later rescued at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to Irish taxpayers. One newspaper commentary described Mr. Cowen, in his unrelenting political troubles, as “putting from the rough.”

As prime minister for most of the past three years, and finance minister for four years before that, Mr. Cowen has been widely blamed for the government’s failure to curb a property boom fueled by reckless lending by Irish banks, and then for pushing a blanket government guarantee for the banks’ debts, thereby sticking Irish taxpayers with the bill and threatening the country’s solvency.

His reputation was not helped by denying insistently, until days before the start of negotiations on the international bailout, that a rescue was necessary. He has spent the past two months fighting for parliamentary acceptance of the bailout, and of the harsh austerity measures international lenders demanded as the price of keeping the economy afloat.

He had been expected to quit once those objectives were secured, but surprised his own supporters by digging in. On Tuesday, he won a Pyrrhic victory in a confidence vote among the party’s lawmakers, with a third of those participating voting against him, and some of those who backed him, including the finance minister, Brian Lenihan, saying publicly that it might have been better if he had quit.

Recent polls have shown that Fianna Fail has support among fewer than 15 percent of voters, and that Mr. Cowen has the backing of fewer than 10 percent of those surveyed, results that have prompted Fianna Fail insiders to predict that the party could lose half or more of the 71 parliamentary seats it currently holds. The polls have pointed to the formation of a new coalition after the election between the two leading opposition parties, Labour and Fine Gael.