Following over two years of intense political struggle, a general election in the 26 Counties will take place on February 25th following the dissolution of the 30th Dail by President McAleese, on the advice of Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
The demise of one of the most unpopular governments in the developed world was greeted with considerable relief on the opposition benches.
But in an occasionally emotional farewell speech, Mr Cowen said he had done his best for the State, and called for a respectful debate on the its future.
“This election will define our economic future and decide whether Ireland moves forward from this recession, prolongs it or succumbs to it,” he said.
The named date brings forward the election by two weeks.
Mr Cowen said his proudest moment in office was playing a part in the peace process. He said he had no future plans. His brother, Barry, is to attempt to hold his seat for Fianna Fail.
Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael, wished Mr Cowen and his family well on his retirement from politics.
“Despite strongly disagreeing with many government policies that the Taoiseach and his party have pursued, I have no doubt about his integrity as a person or as a politician,” he declared.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore said that for the first time in the 90-year history of the State people had a chance to elect a government that was led by neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael but by his party.
Sinn Fein leader in the House, Caoimhghin O Caolain said the outgoing government was one of the worst at any time, anywhere in the world and had made disastrous decisions, particularly in relation to banking.
Mr O Caolain said his party was proud of its record in defence of people’s rights and its substantial role in bringing an end to the Fianna Fail/Green coalition.
He called on all parties to make it clear the EU-IMF loan to the 26-County State was not fair or acceptable.
“All deputies receive calls to their Dail offices from members of the public. Often they are the old, the sick and the vulnerable. Yesterday my office received one such call from an elderly man whose blind pension was cut in the Budget. He had one simple message: ‘Give us a voice.’
“We all must listen to him and to countless others like him.
“On this day when the Dail is dissolved the cut to the minimum wage comes into effect. That’s just one of the ways the least well off in our society have been forced to pay for the disastrous decisions made by the outgoing Government.
“People are being impoverished so that Government can throw money into the banking black hole. 873 million euro was cut from social welfare in the Budget. Yet only yesterday Anglo-Irish, the zombie bank that is being propped up with Irish taxpayers’ money, paid out 750 million euro for a maturing bond despite the fact that the debt is not covered by the State guarantee.
“We in Sinn Fein are proud of the part we have played in the 30th Dail in defending people’s rights and in holding to account one of the worst Governments ever seen anywhere.
“Sinn Fein played a key role in finally removing this Government, through exposing the full extent of its contacts with Anglo-Irish Bank executives.
“We have stood firm against the Consensus for Cuts.
“We have stood for the democratic rights of the people of Donegal South West, going on to win the by-election there.
“The election of Pearse Doherty set in train the events that have now resulted in the fall of this government.”