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Ireland's furious voters

Irish politics have changed irrevocably as a February election approaches.

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.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/ireland/110126/irish-election-brian-cowen-fianna-fail