Pushed by court, Ireland sets election
Ruling puts end to political stall
DUBLIN — Ireland’s government, fighting for political survival as it drafts the most brutal budget in Irish history, said yesterday that it will hold a by-election for a long-empty parliamentary seat — a concession forced on it by an embarrassing court defeat.
High Court Justice Nicholas Kearns ruled that the government had violated Ireland’s constitution by blocking a by-election in Donegal South West for 17 months. He said the unjustifiable delay “offends the terms and spirit of the constitution and its framework for democracy.’’
Opposition chiefs cheered the judgment. Hours later, Prime Minister Brian Cowen agreed to hold a by-election in the rural northwest constituency in the week of Nov. 22-29 — less than two weeks before he will need every vote to pass a 2011 budget expected to impose at least $6.2 billion in cuts and tax hikes.
Cowen had hoped to delay any by-elections — which his deeply unpopular government is virtually certain to lose — for several more months as Ireland enacts its deepest austerity moves yet to combat Europe’s worst deficit.
The premier normally can count on support from 82 of the 161 lawmakers, one more than a bare majority, but several supporters are reserving their positions until they see just how painful the cuts will be.
Filling the Donegal South West seat with an opposition figure could mean Cowen’s coalition has to rely on a deciding vote from the Parliament’s usually neutral speaker. Losing the budget vote would trigger an early election.
The national mood has been darkening in anticipation of cuts and tax hikes, which come on top of two years of such measures.
As Cowen deflected questions inside Parliament about the timing of elections, an estimated 25,000 students marched to the gates outside to protest over fears that the December budget will drive up university fees.
While the main protest by the Union of Students in Ireland was peaceful, hundreds jostled afterward with riot police on foot and horseback.
Police and witnesses said students threw bricks, placards, and eggs at the Department of Finance, and about 20 stormed into the lobby before being wrestled out. Hundreds more staged a sit-down protest in the roadway.
The politician who sued the government over its Donegal by-election obstruction, Pearse Doherty, said Fianna Fail leaders had conspired “to suspend democracy simply because they’re doing badly in the polls.’’
Doherty, whose Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party opposes the budget cuts, is favored to win the Donegal South West seat.
On Tuesday, Cowen’s parliamentary bloc suffered another casualty with the surprise resignation of Fianna Fail lawmaker Jim McDaid.
McDaid’s departure means the Parliament now has four vacancies, all likely to be filled by opposition candidates. The seats in Dublin South and Waterford have gone unfilled since February and March, respectively, but Cowen still hopes to delay those by-elections until April 2011.