x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

EU debt crisis set to see end of Ireland's government

Irish voters look certain to dump the country's traditional party of government, Fianna Fail, for a party, Fine Gael, that has promised to renegotiate the $115bn EU bailout terms of last November.

DUBLIN // Ireland's government looks likely to become the first to fall victim to the EU debt crisis in the general election happening this Friday, three months after it was forced to accept an international bailout.

Voters look certain to dump the country's traditional party of government, Fianna Fail, along with the discredited prime minister, Brian Cowen, and usher in an opposition that has promised to renegotiate the bailout terms.

Fine Gael, led by prime minister-in-waiting Enda Kenny, has campaigned on a promise to negotiate less onerous conditions from the EU and IMF for a nation battered by three years of economic storms.

Since the last national election in 2007, the boom that saw Ireland dubbed the "Celtic Tiger" and allowed it to race away from centuries of poverty and emigration has collapsed into a mire of debt and recrimination.

The final humiliation came in November, when Dublin was forced to accept a package with the EU and IMF worth US$115 billion (Dh422.4bn) and agree a fresh round of austerity measures to slash its massive budget deficit.

Even before a vote has been cast, Mr Kenny has visited EU officials and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to discuss renegotiating the terms, something 82 per cent of Irish voters say they want.

The talks were "to indicate to them that if we're elected to government that we should return to Brussels and renegotiate this bad deal regarding interest rates and bank debts," Mr Kenny said in a TV debate last week.

"This will be a burden on the people of Ireland as a result of the mess caused by Fianna Fail."

In a possible boon for the incoming government, the EU commissioner for economic affairs, Olli Rehn, indicated that there was "room for manoeuvre".

Mr Kenny's recent visits have bolstered his image as a globetrotting statesman, although his opponents dismissed it as a photo-opportunity, and opinion polls suggest that despite a perceived lack of charisma, he is well on course to succeed Mr Cowen as Taoiseach, or prime minister.

Mr Cowen will not be standing in the elections after losing all credibility over his handling of the economy.

He was forced to give up leadership of Fianna Fail last month after weeks of internal turmoil, and the Green party subsequently pulled out of his coalition, giving him no option but to call a snap election.

Mr Cowen's former foreign minister, Micheal Martin, will now lead Fianna Fail into the election, but the party that has dominated Irish politics for decades looks likely to take a beating.

The latest Red C poll for the Sunday Business Post put Fianna Fail at just 16 per cent of the vote, although this was up one percentage point on last week. Fine Gael was up one to 39, while the leftist Labour Party was down three to 17.

The prospect of years of tight public spending, plummeting house prices and 13.4 per cent unemployment have caused the return of a trend that once defined Ireland: emigration to find work overseas.

About 1,000 people will leave Ireland every week over the next two years, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute.

Picking up on that worrying trend, Fine Gael have based much of its electoral campaign on a promise to restore Irish pride and independence.

The party accepts Mr Cowen's target to reduce the budget deficit, which hit 32 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) last year after the state bailout of the banks, to the three per cent EU limit by 2014.

But it wants to renegotiate the 5.8 per cent interest rate on the bailout loans, something Fianna Fail has also sought to do while still in power. Finance minister Brian Lenihan made the case on a trip to Brussels last month.

The Labour Party, which could form a coalition with Fine Gael if the latter fails to win enough support to govern alone, also wants to change the deal by extending the time Ireland has to cut the deficit to 2016.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein, whose leader Gerry Adams is hoping to be elected to the Irish parliament for the first time, wants to abandon the bailout altogether and write off the banks' debts.