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John Drennan: State may be forced into by-elections just after Budget

THE government may be forced to hold the three pending Dail by-elections within days of the budget.

That would mean the electorate would have an immediate opportunity to deliver a verdict on what is expected to be the harshest budget in years.

This possibility has emerged in the wake of the commitment by the High Court Judge Nicholas Kearns to give a judgement on the attempt by Pearse Doherty and Sinn Fein to compel the government to hold the Donegal by-election by November 5.

In an Irish Times interview yesterday Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the writ for the Donegal byelection would be moved in the first quarter of 2011, but he refused to commit himself to holding the Dublin and Waterford byelections on the same day, saying they would be held in due course.

However, if the High Court rules that the government's delay is in breach of the constitution, FF would be forced to make an appeal to the Supreme court to delay the three polls.

If they don't, they have to issue the writs for Donegal or all three by-elections immediately, which would give the public a chance to react to what is expected to be the harshest budget in the history of the State.

Government sources remain adamant that the elections will not be held until the new year. The Cabinet consensus is "the concentration on fiscal issues such as the budget from October means it will be genuinely difficult to find the time to do the by-elections before the new year''.

One source noted that "as the Dail is not sitting in January it will really be March before an appropriate date''.

But Labour's Brendan Howlin said that such a position would cut very little ice with the courts, if they believe the current delay is unacceptable. The Labour TD said such an attitude ran the risk of being seen to be "profoundly contemptuous of the court, the Constitution and the institutions of the State'' and that the courts could quite possibly tell the government to rectify the situation where "they admit denying the people proper representation'' immediately.

The Government's confidence that the elections will not occur for another five months may be informed by the belief that the courts are generally reluctant to interfere with political issues. Buut Mr Howlin noted that while the separation of powers means the Dail is independent of the courts, "when it comes to the election of these members, the courts have regularly intervened''.

He added that this was particularly the case where a government left itself open to the charge of acting with "prejudice or caprice''.

Sunday Independent