DUBLIN — Lawmakers in Prime Minister Brian Cowen's own party mounted a rebellion Tuesday to try to oust him, an effort that could trigger a snap election and delay a massive EU-IMF bailout of Ireland.
Cowen's Cabinet colleagues in the Fianna Fail party said they were confident, however, that the rebels don't have enough votes to pursue a no-confidence motion against Cowen.
The Cabinet gathered at Cowen's office to complete its four-year plan for unprecedented budget cuts tied to Ireland's international bailout. The plan, which proposes to slash €15 billion ($20 billion) from the country's 2011-14 budget deficits, is to be published Wednesday.
Two separate meetings were happening Tuesday — one led by a handful of publicly identified rebels, the second by the full 70-strong bloc of Fianna Fail lawmakers.
"There's serious discontent within the parliamentary party. I believe it's now up to those who've spoken out to take soundings amongst their colleagues to take action to remove that man (Cowen) immediately," Fianna Fail lawmaker John McGuinness said.
At stake is the future course of the potentially €100 billion ($136 billion) European Union and International Monetary Fund rescue of Ireland, a nation heading toward backruptcy next year because of a bank-bailout bill it can no longer finance on its own.
The Irish crisis, and its uncertain solution, have driven up the borrowing costs of debt-struck nations from Portugal to Spain and fanned fears that a third member of the 16-nation eurozone after Greece and Ireland might be backed into its own bailout corner soon.
Cowen conceded Monday night he must call an election next year but sought to delay it as long as possible. His hand was forced when the junior party in his coalition, the Greens, said it would withdraw support once the 2011 budget was passed.
The Greens said they expected the country to hold an election by late January, but Fianna Fail officials said the budget would require multiple votes on different tax increases that could drag the process into February.
At the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, EU monetary and financial affairs minister Olli Rehn gathered Ireland's European lawmakers together for a confidential briefing — and came out declaring that Ireland must set aside its political infighting to "stop the financial bush fire concerning Ireland before it becomes a European-wide forest fire."
"It is essential that Ireland pass the budget in the timeline foreseen, and sooner rather than later, because every day that is lost increases incertainty," Rehn said. "Let's adopt the budget and let's move on."
Cowen pleaded Monday night with his many opponents not to force him from office until the 2011 budget is passed in full and EU-IMF money is flowing into Irish banks. He later telephoned the two major opposition leaders, Fine Gael's Enda Kenny and Labour's Eamon Gilmore, to seek their acquiescence when the government unveils the 2011 budget Dec. 7.
But opposition lawmakers emphasized Tuesday they were determined to force Cowen's ouster as soon as possible in hopes of a pre-Christmas election.
"What's the point of a government preparing a four-year plan that they won't preside over, that they won't be there to implement, and that they haven't consulted the people on?" said Fine Gael lawmaker James Reilly.
"I believe the IMF and European Central Bank would be far more comfortable dealing with a government that has the backing of the people and will be there for five years," he added.