The Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, said today that a general election would be held on March 11 after a string of resignations by ministers sparked protests from his coalition partners.
"It is my intention in due course to seek a dissolution of Dail Eireann (parliament) with a view to a general election taking place on Friday, March 11," Cowen told parliament.
Mr Cowen accepted the resignations today of his ministers overseeing justice, health, trade and enterprise, defence and transport, but was forced to transfer responsibility instead to other existing ministers. That avoided the need for a parliamentary vote.
Their resignations followed that of the foreign minister, Micheal Martin, earlier in the week, after Mr Martin launched a failed bid to unseat Mr Cowen as leader of their Fianna Fail party over his handling of the country's financial bailout last November by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Mr Cowen's attempt to promote five junior MPs in advance of the election that was expected in March and give them a chance to establish themselves ahead of the election, where Fianna Fail is bracing for a drubbing by voters angry over its handling of the economic crisis, had provoked fury in the Irish parliament.
MPs who normally support his government refused to back the reshuffle, putting his government on the brink of collapse. Appointment of newly promoted ministers requires majority approval in parliament.
The opposition Fine Gael party spokesman Phil Hogan condemned the resignations, as a "cynical move by the government".
"It's very undemocratic and it's an attempt by the Taoiseach [prime minister] in the dying days of this administration to try and reconstruct his government and give them some little political advantage," he told RTE state radio.
Mr Cowen's government has been widely criticised in Ireland for its handling of the financial crisis that led to the EU/IMF bailout.
Mr Cowen, 51, has also faced allegations that he is too close to the disgraced boss of Anglo Irish Bank. 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 an economy once so vibrant it was dubbed the "Celtic Tiger".
A Red C poll published last week showed public support for Mr Cowen was at 10 per cent, while just 14 per cent of voters said they would back his party, Fianna Fail.
* With agencies