Ireland’s Prime Minister Brian Cowen has announced a general election for March 11.

The Fianna Fail leader intends to dissolve parliament to hold the election – under Green Party orders.

Brian Cowen promised that hard-hitting budget laws outlined last month in the wake of Ireland’s EUR85bn international bail-out would be passed before then.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen said: “Prior to the general election we are committed to enacting key pieces of legislation to secure Ireland’s economic future.”

In a setback for Ireland’s Prime Minister, he added that five vacated cabinet seats would be reassigned to existing ministers.

It came after five of his ministers resigned, in a move sharply criticised by the opposition.

Resigning ministers include Mary Harney from health, Dermot Ahern from justice, Noel Dempsey from transport, Tony Killeen from defence and Batt O’Keefe from enterprise.

In a chaotic aftermath a cabal of ministers and ex-ministers – led by arch rivals Brian Lenihan and Micheál Martin – showed they were furious at Cowen’s cynical attempt to appoint the new ministers in the dying days of his rule, despite warnings from the Greens.

Cowen drew up Cabinet reshuffle plans on Wednesday night, with details only emerging hours later when Green leader John Gormley was already in bed, and knew nothing of what was going on.

Cowen showed an extraordinary display of defiance, in full glare of the media as Fianna Fáil TDs (MPs) streamed out in utter bewilderment – and shame after announcing the election.

They openly asked if they could call a party meeting as soon as possible to get rid of Cowen. The animated TDs talked treason – knowing they were being watched closely by a gathering of journalists.

The message is that Brian Cowen must resign as party leader within days or he faces being pushed out.
The government has lost huge support since the November bailout.

Prime Minister Cowen had hoped to delay the poll, to give him – and the country’s economy – more recovery time.

However, after 988 days in office, Mr Cowen had been forced to announce an election date. The opinion polls suggest his party will be heavily defeated.

The most likely alternative government is a centre left/centre right coalition between the Labour Party and Fine Gael.

Cowen insisted his government’s policies had put Ireland on the path to recovery and economic growth.

“I want us to get through the hard times and see the country prosperous in the future,” he said.

Junior Minister Conor Lenihan told reporters that the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) was “fatally damaged” as Fianna Fáil leader and must resign or be forced out.

He said: “I’ve never felt, in my entire life, to be hugely embarrassed to be a member of Fianna Fáil, but this is extraordinarily embarrassing.

“I hope in all sincerity that the Taoiseach will reflect on his own situation and his own contribution and do what is best for the party in terms of its actual survival.

“The incompetence seems to emanate… from the Taoiseach,” he said. The credibility and authority of the office of Taoiseach is now critically undermined, he added. He also said many in the party had changed their minds since voting confidence in Mr Cowen on Tuesday night.

“All my party colleagues are shell-shocked. The expectation clearly was that we would have an election in late March and now, unfortunately, because of huge mishandling of the situation, we are now in a much earlier election and in a much more damaged state than we could ever have