Ireland's furious voters

DUBLIN, Ireland — "All changed, changed utterly," wrote poet W.B. Yeats.

His words describe the Irish political landscape today as voters prepare to elect a new government on Feb. 25.

Farcical scenes in the last days of the Irish parliament, the Dail, and the imposition of new, punitive taxes to pay for the country’s financial meltdown, have combined to give furious Irish voters one overriding goal: Throw the bums out.

Their anger is combined with a sense of shame at the low to which Ireland’s stock has fallen internationally after the heady years of the Celtic Tiger, when the apparent success of the small open and lightly-regulated economy on the edge of Europe was widely admired.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the downfall of Brian Cowen’s government has been one of the most remarkable events in Irish political history,” said Stephen Collins, political editor of the Irish Times. “Politics will probably never be the same again.”

Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen was forced to step down as leader of Fianna Fail — traditionally Ireland’s largest party — after the small Green Party left the ruling coalition on Sunday.

The Greens had lost confidence in their partners over a botched attempt by Cowen to reshuffle his cabinet to give younger members of his party an elevated status going into the election.

Cowen had told government ministers who were not intending to seek election to resign, but he was then unable to gain parliamentary approval for their replacements, leaving him with only half a cabinet and egg on his face.

No longer leader of his party, unable to command a majority in the Dail and widely derided for incompetence and bungling, Cowen was forced to bring forward the date of an election he had originally planned for March 11.

Despite the spectacular implosion of his government, Cowen insisted on staying on as taoiseach to try to push through a finance bill giving effect to punitive budget changes dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

The impact on Fianna Fail of the meltdown in government is expected to be catastrophic when voters go to the polls in Ireland’s proportional representation elections.

For most of a century the movement founded by Eamon de Valera in the 1920s, and now led by former Foreign Minister Micheal Martin who was chosen by Fianna Fail deputies Wednesday to succeed Cowen, has taken on the mantle of a ruling party in Ireland.

With branches in every parish and close links to Gaelic games, the Catholic Church and big business, Fianna Fail consistently polled higher than 40 percent, enabling it to form government coalitions with smaller parties.

In the last election in 2007, just before the property and credit bubble burst, Fianna Fail won 77 of the 166 seats in the Dail and formed a coalition with the six-seat Green Party.

With polls now showing that its support has collapsed to 14 percent, analysts predict that it faces a generation in opposition, if not a total wipe-out.

The largest opposition party, Fine Gael, currently with 51 members, and whose centrist policies are in fact little different from those of Fianna Fail, is expected to form the next government in a coalition with a re-energized Labour Party, which presently has 20 seats.

Electors are so disillusioned with the major parties, however, that there could be a lurch to the left in Irish politics, with Sinn Fein and socialist independents gaining a foothold in several constituencies.

Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, which has five seats in the Dail, is standing as a candidate in County Louth, despite being based outside the republic. Adams is an abstentionist member of the United Kingdom parliament for West Belfast in Northern Ireland, and has announced he is resigning that post.

Under a 400-year-old rule, an MP may only stand down by being granted a nominal Crown title and Adams has had to allow himself be appointed Baron of the Manor of Northstead — a meaningless and unpaid ranking but which the Sinn Fein leader will find hard to live down. Announcing this in the House of Commons Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said to laughter, "I'm not sure Gerry Adams will be delighted to be a Baron of Northstead but I'm pleased that tradition has been maintained."

Sinn Fein, which aspires to a united Ireland, hopes to take votes mainly from Fianna Fail.

The collapse in support for Fianna Fail dates back to September 2009 when the Cowen-led government gave a blanket guarantee to Irish banks, which had made reckless loans to developers, forcing the country into the humiliation of going cap in hand to the IMF and EU for a 85 billion euro ($116 billion) bailout last November.

The resulting contraction in the economy has led to renewed emigration, increased unemployment and the closure of many hotels, restaurants, bars and retail outlets across the country.

On top of that, Irish workers, already hit by higher taxes and by sweeping reductions in welfare and other services, opened their pay stubs this month to find that their income has been further reduced by between 2 and 7 percent.

A worker earning 2,000 euros ($2,730) a month, for example, lost another 140 euros, and someone earning 900 euros a month got 36 euros less.

Call-in programs on Irish radio have been inundated by outraged listeners voicing their anger at the new fee, known as a “universal social charge,” with many accusing the government of skimming off the middle and lower classes to pay for the bank bailout.

Candidates in Irish elections traditionally canvass voters by knocking on every door in their constituencies. In the coming contest, some Fianna Fail candidates may feel that it is more prudent to stuff a leaflet in the mailbox and make a quick getaway.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Gerry Adams' baronial appointment.