Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen speaks at a news conference at Government Buildings in Dublin
Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen speaks at a news conference at Government Buildings in Dublin, Ireland, November 28, 2010. Cowen announced a bailout loan package agreed with the IMF and European Union. REUTERS

On Thursday, 20 January 2011, Brian Cowen, Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) announced that a general election will be held on 11 March 2011. Somewhat earlier than he and his Fianna Fáil Party would have liked - their preference was the 25th - it is unlikely to make any significant difference to their expected trouncing at the election by a Fine Gael/Labour coalition.

Their plans have at any rate been overtaken by events. On Sunday 23 January 2011, Fianna Fáil's Green Party coalition partners called a press conference to announce their withdrawal from the Government. Unless a deal can be brokered within the next couple of days, the signs are that the Greens may support a possible vote of no confidence tabled by the opposition, thus bringing on an election in February. This uncertainty is the last thing Ireland needs as it must, whoever is in power, maintain the confidence of the markets.

For the best part of a year now as the fiscal crisis unfolded, brought about by the collapse in Ireland's banking, property and construction sectors, the Government has been increasingly blamed for allowing the situation to get as bad as it has. It is also seen to have shied away from being upfront with the electorate so that when the true scale of the catastrophe became known, disenchantment was all the greater.

That disenchantment expressed itself very clearly on 25 November 2010 at the Donegal South West by-election when the Fianna Fáil candidate came a poor third after the first preference votes were counted. The seat was won by Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Féin candidate. The by-election itself was an indication of how tenuous a hold on authority even Fianna Fáil felt it had in the country and is likely to be in the annals of Ireland's parliamentary history for quite some time.

The Donegal South West by-election was finally held after the seat had been left vacant for a record 17 months after Fianna Fáil's MP, Pat Gallagher was elected to the European Parliament in June 2009.

Senator Pearse Doherty, as he was then, was granted leave by Ireland's High Court to take the delay issue to judicial review. High Court President, Justice Nicholas Kearns in his ruling on 04 November 2010, described the delay as "unprecedented...the longest in the history of the State and represented a significant proportion of the five year Dáil term."

Although not willing to order the Government to set an election date, Justice Kearns went on to describe the delay as offending the terms and spirit of the Constitution.

The by-election being duly held, the delay, if it was used as a political stratagem, backfired badly as Ireland's economic situation worsened during the period the seat remained vacant. On a 57 per cent turnout, Mr Doherty won nearly 40 per cent of the first preference votes to only 21 per cent for the Fianna Fáil candidate (50 per cent at the 2007 General Election).

This result meant that the Government's majority was reduced to two. Possibly as a result, Ireland's 10 Year Bonds peaked at 9.472 on 30 November 2010. Eleventh hour measures to shore up support and elect a new leader!? Mr Cowen refused to stand down.

An opinion poll for the Irish Times, three weeks after the Donegal South West by-election on 16 December 2010, indicated a big drop from that paper's September poll for Fianna Fáil, though a small recovery from the November 2010 lows. With September figures in brackets, the poll showed Fianna Fáil with 17 per cent (24), Fine Gael, 30 per cent (24), Labour, 25 per cent (33), Sinn Féin, 15 per cent (8), Green Party unchanged on two per cent, and Independent/Others, 11 per cent (9).

Satisfaction with Brian Cowen stood at 14 per cent, down from 19 per cent in the September poll but much better than the eight per cent of some reports immediately after the results of the Donegal South West by-election were announced.

If matters did not look good for the Government in late 2010, the New Year brought little respite from a flood of bad news. Typical headlines announced that more than a thousand people per week are leaving the country, especially the young and talented, unemployment is over 13 per cent and will remain so for the foreseeable future and of course, numerous articles on the cursed Anglo Irish Bank.

Figures released by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on 21 January 2011, expects that between April 2010 and April 2011, Ireland will lose as many as 60,000 people due to the severe unemployment, and a further 40,000 to April 2012, and the same again to April 2013.

Although unemployment looks to have peaked in October 2010 at just over 14 per cent, ESRI predicts that even with such high emigration figures, unemployment will average 13.5 per cent during 2011 and 13 per cent throughout 2012.

Long-term unemployment (one year or more) now stands at 6.5 per cent and, most worryingly, the ESRI figures indicate that 15 to 19-year-olds out of work total over 33 per cent, whilst among 20 to 24-year-olds, the total is over 25 per cent.

An investigation by the Irish Times covering 46,000 emigrants in the last year, discovered that the top five destinations for people seeking work were: Australia, Canada, New-Zealand, United States and Germany.

Despite Mr Cowen's determination to stay in office in order that Ireland's drastic austerity measures pass through the Dáil, the wonder surely is that no-one was willing to challenge him until last Sunday, 16 January 2011, when Micheál Martin, then Foreign Minister tendered his resignation and challenged the Taoiseach.

For Mr Martin, the issue at stake, he told RTÉ was: "...who can lead an effective, organised and vibrant [election] campaign and then thereafter, rebuild the party."

On 18 January 2011, Fianna Fáil's chief whip announced that Mr Cowen had won the confidence vote and Mr Martin immediately resigned. Voting had been restricted to the 71 Fianna Fáil MPs and party sources told the Guardian that the majority was between six and eight, though others put it at double this.

Dissent rumbled on with a number of those who had voted against Mr Cowen claiming that the strong endorsement of the PM given by Brian Lenihan, the Finance Minister, was at odds with what Mr Lenihan had previously said to them! That's politics for you!

With expectations that the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party will be reduced to as few as 30 after the coming election and a Fine Gael/Labour majority of as many, resistance to Mr Cowen's apparent victory was not to be stilled and by Friday 21 January, six Ministers had resigned from the Government.

At a press conference on the afternoon of Saturday 22 January 2011, at the Merrion Hotel in the centre of Dublin, Brian Cowen announced his decision to step down as leader of Fianna Fáil - but said he intended to remain as Taoiseach until the election on 11 March. As per my opening paragraphs, the Opposition have other ideas and it might yet be, too little too late.

Whoever forms the next Government of Ireland will have little choice but to continue, bar some tweaks, the latest harsh and unpopular austerity measures that started to take effect on 01 January 2011. No political party or coalition can afford to upset Ireland's EU/ECB/IMF backers and worsen its already precarious credit rating.

That rating was downgraded by Moody's on 17 December 2010 from Aa2 to Baa 1 with a Negative outlook and at Friday 21 January's close, Ireland's 10 Year Bond rate was 8.79, when many consider much beyond 7.0 to 7.5 unsustainable in the long term.

Ireland's financial crisis evolved into a political crisis and one which was harder and harder to hide within the Government Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition. Alarm bells rang loudly and clearly after the Donegal South West by-election. There is little doubt that in similar circumstances in the likes of the USA or UK, where personal ties and relationships play a less important part in politics, this would have prompted action against an obdurate leadership.

Alas that alarm bell was disregarded and so, metaphorically, we are left with John Donne (1572 - 1631):

"Perchance he for whom the bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him, and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that."

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris.