FINANCE Minister Brian Lenihan was forced to admit last night that the Finance Bill could be passed by the end of the week -- after previously declaring it would be a "logistical impossibility".
It clears the way for the Dail to be dissolved next week and a date set for an earlier general election, with Friday, February 25th considered the most likely polling day.
This will be two weeks earlier than the date of March 11 announced by Taoiseach Brian Cowen last week.
And there will be special Dail sittings this week devoted entirely to the Finance Bill -- with none of the usual routines such as Leaders' Questions.
The aim is for the Dail to pass the bill (which implements the remaining Budget measures) on Thursday and then for the Seanad to deal with the bill on Friday and Saturday.
The Dail will be on standby to reconvene on Saturday evening to implement any necessary changes for it to be passed into law.
Mr Cowen is then expected to announce the dissolution of the Dail, with one possible time being when the Dail returns next Tuesday.
After a cross-party meeting at the Department of Finance yesterday, it emerged that Mr Lenihan had dropped his previous insistence that it would be a "logistical impossibility" to pass the Finance Bill this week.
He said he would have preferred to have a fortnight to pass the bill -- but was glad that agreement had been reached to complete it now by Saturday.
"Of course, the Taoiseach is aware of the timetable for the Finance Bill and he's in agreement with it," he said.
The news is a boost for Fianna Fail leadership candidate Micheal Martin, who had stated his belief that it would be possible to have the Finance Bill passed sooner rather than later.
Fine Gael finance spokesman Michael Noonan said the motion of no confidence in the Government tabled by the opposition gave a lever to make sure an agreement was reached.
"The Government doesn't have a majority any more, the opposition together have a majority.
"While everybody was reasonable, it was the obvious alternative to a vote of no confidence that everyone would lose," he said.
Fine Gael and Labour are reserving the right to vote against sections of the Finance Bill, but the Government will be able to get it through by Saturday with the support of the Green Party and Independents Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry.
The meeting at the Department of Finance began at 4pm yesterday and the main participants emerged shortly after 6pm.
The Finance Bill will implement the outstanding measures from the Budget, including a number of initiatives designed to cut down on tax avoidance.
Mr Noonan said his party would put down a motion of no confidence in Mr Cowen if he did not dissolve the Dail by next Tuesday. But he indicated the opposition did not "push too hard" for a definitive election date because it was Mr Cowen's constitutional right to name it.
However, Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said she believed that Friday, February 25 was the likely election date, after the passage of the Finance Bill.
She also said the Green Party had indicated it would vote "no confidence" in the Government if the Dail was not dissolved by next Tuesday.
Brendan Keeenan analysis, page 23