DUBLIN, Nov 26, 2010 (AFP) - Ireland's government was Friday awaiting the results of a by-election expected to cut its already slim majority, as talks on an international bailout for the country's ailing economy gathered pace.
As polls closed Thursday, Prime Minister Brian Cowen's Fianna Fail party was widely expected to lose its seat in County Donegal in northwest Ireland to the nationalist Sinn Fein party.
|Protesters hold a demonstration in Dublin on November 24.(AFP)|
If they did lose the seat it would cut the coalition government's majority to just two seats.
A day after publishing a four-year package of austerity measures designed to smooth the way towards huge loans from the EU and IMF, Cowen warned Thursday that everyone would have to tighten their belts if Ireland was to recover.
Cowen told parliament the plan -- unprecedented in Irish history -- gave people a chance to see the sharp "adjustment" necessary to shore up the national finances and "plan ahead for the future".
"People in their own household experience know that you can't go on with a situation if your revenues are back to what you were earning in 2003 and that your spend is right up to date in 2010 terms.
"People know that is not a sustainable position," he said.
Having built up a deficit equivalent to 32 percent of gross domestic product this year, Ireland is in talks to borrow about 85 billion euros (114 billion dollars) from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Negotiations on the bailout are set to wrap up on Sunday, diplomatic sources in Brussels told AFP.
The international intervention to help Ireland has failed to remove doubts about its ability to stabilise its shattered finances.
That concern, and fears of contagion spreading to Portugal and the far larger Spanish economy, continued to hurt the euro, which was worth 1.3360 dollars at 0100 GMT.
Nor was the austerity plan enough to calm the bond markets: the yield on benchmark 10-year government bonds jumped to record highs above 9.0 percent as markets remained nervous.
The draconian austerity plan and a budget on December 7 are crucial steps to show Ireland's fellow eurozone members that it is putting its finances in order.
The 15-billion-euro series of austerity measures include slashing 25,000 jobs, raising VAT, or sales tax, to 23 percent, and cutting the minimum wage.
Ireland has however managed to preserve its ultra-low 12.5 percent corporation tax rate, a key reason that foreign companies have invested there.
Economists supported Ireland's tax stance.
"This will send out a clear statement that Ireland, despite its economic difficulties, is still very committed to incentivising the creation and maintenance of high value jobs," Ernst and Young's Kevin McLoughlin said.
The government's decision to turn to the EU and IMF has enraged Cowen's opponents, who accused him of humiliating the country.
The anger surfaced in the by-election in Donegal South West, a rural area of northwest Ireland where resentment towards the EU runs high. Polls opened at 0600 GMT and closed at 2200 GMT with the result set to be declared late Friday.
Turnout for the poll was expected to be well down on the 66 percent seen in the last election as mistrust in the political system convinced voters to stay at home.
In Donegal town, butcher Ernan McGettigan said he saw a grim future ahead.
"The way our country is going at the moment we will have to declare ourselves bankrupt.
"There are only four million people and we have incurred a debt of around 4,000 euros for every person."
President Mary McAleese recognised the nation's rage. "I want to acknowledge the understandable distress and dismay being experienced by people all around the country who feel fearful about their future," she said.
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan acknowledged there was "no denying the reputational damage Ireland has endured" in the economic crisis.
But writing in the Financial Times, he argued that the country had the attributes to pick itself up and stressed that the country still ranked second in Europe for productivity.
"The government faces many challenges but we have the necessary support to pass the budget in December," Lenihan insisted.