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History-making Irish vote shot through with anger

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny speaks during a meeting at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, on Sunday. Ireland’s historic elections this week could devastate the party blamed for the troubling state of the country’s economy.

Associated Press

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny speaks during a meeting at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, on Sunday. Ireland’s historic elections this week could devastate the party blamed for the troubling state of the country’s economy.

Associated Press

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GALWAY, Ireland — Ireland holds historic elections this week — a ballot that could devastate the party blamed for the country's dramatic economic reverse and dump it from office after dominating Irish politics for almost 80 years.

The ruling Fianna Fail party faces defeat in Friday's poll as voters vent their anger over Ireland's rapid decline from economic miracle into debt-ridden disaster. The country has been forced to accept a multibillion rescue deal from European neighbors and the International Monetary Fund.

Karen Holland, 29, stood with her arms crossed outside Paddy's pub in Galway, on Ireland's west coast, as she described struggling to raise her four children on the salary brought home by her husband, a security guard.

For Holland, the politicians had it coming. "They should have let the banks go down," she said, referring to the government's fateful decision to guarantee debts held by some of its biggest banks with public money. "They let us go down instead."

Holland's anger has found echoes across the country, and some observers predict this week's vote has the potential for revolutionary change.

"The word I'd use here is 'seismic,' " said Noel Whelan, a staunch critic of the government's handling of the crisis and commentator for the Irish Times. "We're going to see next weekend a political earthquake in Ireland."

Investors are watching for aftershocks in London, Paris and Berlin.

European banks have billions tied up in Ireland's troubled financial sector. The current government has guaranteed their money, but Fine Gael — the party tipped to take over from its longtime rival — has said it is unconscionable "for taxpayers to be asked to beggar themselves to make massive profits for speculators."

Fine Gael has raised the prospect of forcing some senior creditors to take a cut on their investments, and the possibility of a new dose of red ink being splashed across European balance sheets has spooked the markets at a time when concern persists over the financial health of countries such as Greece and Portugal.

Earlier this month, credit rating agency Moody's downgraded the creditworthiness of six major Irish banks as politicians argued whether or when to inject more cash.

Ireland's 4.6 million people have their own worries. The one-time Celtic Tiger economy was an early victim of the Great Recession. Its government quickly guaranteed the debts racked up by its banks — a promise which turned into political poison.

Unemployment has tripled in three years to 13.4 percent, Ireland's welfare system is shriveling away and taxes have gone up in a bid to fight a deficit estimated at more than one third of the country's $204.1 billion GDP.

The election could claim as many as half of the legislators in Ireland's 166-seat lower house, polls suggest. Recent surveys show the opposition Fine Gael is within reach of a parliamentary majority in the Dail Eireann — a potential upset for Fianna Fail, which has won the most seats in every election since the party went into government in 1932.

History-making Irish vote shot through with anger 02/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 20, 2011 10:07pm]

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