Cowen forced into vote before Budget
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen was last night forced to hold a long awaited by-election by the end of this month after a damning High Court ruling.
It means that his Government will have to focus on campaigning for the Donegal South West by-election just before the crucial December 7 Budget -- although there will be fewer ministerial visits than normal to the constituency as a result.
Last night, Government chief whip John Curran said the by-election would not affect the preparations for the Budget.
But he admitted it would be more difficult to pass the Budget if the loss of the Donegal South West seat saw the Government's majority being cut from three votes to two.
"But the Government still has a working majority," he said. In a decision that could shorten the lifespan of the Government, the Cabinet agreed last night to move the order for the Donegal South West by-election in the Dail today.
It means the by-election will legally have to be held between Monday 22 and Monday 29 of this month.
Mr Curran said the decision was prompted by the ruling of the President of the High Court Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns.
He found that the 17-month delay in calling the by-election in Donegal South West was so inordinate as to amount to a breach of the rights of the Sinn Fein candidate Senator Pearse Doherty.
Mr Doherty said last night that he was "delighted" with the Government's decision to finally hold the by-election.
"Let's be clear, they have been left with no option as a result of my High Court case, they have been forced into it. They have to explain to the people of the State how they wasted taxpayers' money defending the indefensible,"
The taxpayer will now have to cover the entire cost of the by-election case taken by Sinn Fein, which a legal expert estimated last night could be between €100,000 to €150,000. And the bill is likely to rise further because the Cabinet decided to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
Mr Curran said this was based on the advice of Attorney General Paul Gallagher that the decision raised significant issues about the separation of power between the courts and the Government.
He denied it was a tactic to defer holding the other three by-elections in Waterford, Dublin South and Donegal North East.
He said that while no decision had been made on the dates for these elections, it was still the aim to hold them in the spring.
And he denied that the Government was living on "borrowed time" as a result of the Cabinet's decision last night.
"As long as the Government has the votes and a mandate to govern, the Government will continue to do that," he said.
Fine Gael chief whip Paul Kehoe said the Government was "clinging on to power", pointing out that the Government's majority (three) was now less than the number of vacant Dail seats (four).
His party has moved a writ to attempt to force the Government to hold all the outstanding by-elections, as Labour and Sinn Fein also announced similar plans.
The Government had previously voted down two attempts by the opposition to set a date for the Donegal South West by-election. There is no specific time limit set for calling a by-election in legislation.
But in his 53-page judgment yesterday, the judge supported Sinn Fein's claim that the writ for the Donegal South West by-election should have been moved some time since the election of Fianna Fail's Pat 'The Cope" Gallagher to the European Parliament in June last year.
Mr Justice Kearns stopped short of ordering the Government to set a date for the crucial by-election. But, in a veiled threat, he said the issue was not far short of a case requiring draconian action.