Irish opposition leaders vow to redraft austerity plan if they win power

By David Stringer and Shawn Pogatchnik
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:39 PM

DUBLIN - Opposition leaders vowed Thursday to rewrite Ireland's harsh four-year austerity plan if, as expected, they oust Prime Minister Brian Cowen in early elections next year.

European Union and International Monetary Fund experts negotiating an estimated $115 billion bailout for Ireland have demanded that the country make binding commitments to slash its deficit - now the worst in Europe - as a condition of any aid.

To that end, Ireland unveiled a plan Wednesday to cut $20 billion from its deficits through 2014, starting with the 2011 budget, which the government will present to parliament Dec. 7.

Opposition chiefs have refused to say whether they will support that budget, which will seek $6 billion in cuts and $2 billion in new taxes. The government says the budget's defeat would imperil Ireland's efforts to save its banking system from collapse - and sabotage any hope of getting an EU-IMF loan.

Enda Kenny, leader of the main opposition, Fine Gael, told lawmakers his party would redraft the four-year plan if it wins power. "The next government will not be bound by it," he said. Kenny's party said it would seek to overturn a planned cut to Ireland's minimum wage.

Labor Party leader Eamon Gilmore, Kenny's most likely coalition partner, said the government's 2011-14 plan offered too few details on how to create new jobs in a country where unemployment has doubled in the past two years to 13.6 percent. "This plan is the price of political failure, and it's a very heavy price indeed," Gilmore said.

Cowen is expected to call an early election by March because of a threat by his government's junior coalition member, the Green Party, to withdraw once the 2011 budget is passed. The Greens expect an election by January, but Cowen says votes on the budget's tax hikes and welfare cuts could be delayed until February.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said he was confident opposition leaders would just abstain during the budget votes. He said that even if they tried to block the budget, the government would have enough votes to win.

Speaking at a Thanksgiving luncheon for American businesses in Ireland, Lenihan said the government's ability to win budget votes would "send a signal to the world that Ireland remains a country with huge economic potential." But analysts say the government's parliamentary majority is about to sink further when the winner is declared Friday for a special election in northwest Ireland.

About 600 U.S. businesses have bases in Ireland.

- Associated Press

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