Ireland gears up for February poll

Ireland looked set to go to the polls in late February after its crisis-hit government Monday struck a deal with the opposition to fast-track legislation needed to secure an EU-IMF bailout.

Speaking after crunch talks with opposition parties, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said that a timetable had been agreed to push through the vital finance bill by Saturday.

Parliament will be dissolved after the bill passes and a general election called which was now expected late next month, said Lenihan, amid mounting speculation the vote will be on February 25.

It is seen as crucial for Ireland to pass the bill before an election is called, as it will help secure loans worth 67 billion euros (ê90 billion) agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in November.

Monday's agreement came after a torrid weekend in which Cowen quit as leader of the Fianna Fail party and his coalition saw its parliamentary majority wiped out when the Green party withdrew from government.

"We have reached the agreed timetable to allow for the finance bill to pass all stages by January 29 (Saturday)," Lenihan said in a statement, after talks that included the main opposition Labour and Fine Gael parties.

Polls were originally called for March 11 by Prime Minister Brian Cowen last week amid mounting fury that the one-time "Celtic Tiger" economy was forced to seek a bailout, but this plan fell apart over the weekend.

Normal parliamentary business in the Dail, or lower house of parliament, would be suspended to allow "full attention" to be given to the bill and the upper house would sit for an extra day on Saturday, Lenihan said.

Opposition parties had given Cowen an ultimatum to pass the bill and dissolve parliament by the end of the week or face a confidence vote that could have brought down the government, making it the first to fall because of the euro crisis.

After the timetable was announced, Labour party finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said that "election date will be Feb 25th, I understand," in a message on microblogging site Twitter.
"Dail dissolved either this weekend or Tuesday," she added.

The European Union said earlier it was "crucial" that Dublin passes the bill before elections. Ireland is the second eurozone nation to seek a bailout after Greece needed emergency help last year.

Delays on the Irish rescue could also throw back into turmoil the EU's attempts to soothe markets worried about wider eurozone debt levels and a patchwork political response to date.

Nominations for the race to succeed Cowen as Fianna Fail leader closed on Monday with four candidates throwing their hats into the ring: Lenihan, former foreign minister Micheal Martin, Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv and Sports Minister Mary Hanafin.

A secret ballot of the parliamentary party will take place on Wednesday.

The bookies' favourite is Martin, who 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 and led to him quitting as leader of the party, which he has led since becoming premier in May 2008.

The Green party vetoed any new reappointments and pressured Cowen into announcing the March 11 general election date.

Pressure on Cowen over his handling of Ireland's economic crisis has mounted in recent weeks after it emerged he had played golf with the former chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, Sean FitzPatrick.

Anglo Irish had to be nationalised to prevent its collapse, and has become a symbol of the bad debts amassed by the banks which ravaged the economy.

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