Ireland is set to hold a snap election on February 8 after Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced Tuesday he was seeking a dissolution of parliament from President Michael D Higgins.
Varadkar, leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party, said now was the best time to go to the polls, as neighbouring Britain has approved its withdrawal agreement with the European Union.
That gave a ‘window of opportunity’ to get a new government in place with a ‘strong mandate’ for negotiations later this year on a trade agreement between the EU and Britain, he said.
Varadkar's term of office since 2017 has been dominated by Brexit, with the Irish leader seeking guarantees on a continued open border with Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.
Last month, new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson got the House of Common's approval for a withdrawal agreement providing for just that, after the issue brought down his predecessor Theresa May.
A final obstacle to holding polls was cleared on Saturday when Northern Ireland's devolved assembly met for the first time after three years of political breakdown, following months of negotiations brokered by the Irish and British governments.
Varadkar has won plaudits at home for keeping EU leaders united in support of Ireland's open border Brexit demand, seen by many in Dublin as key to maintaining a 1998 peace deal in Northern Ireland.
But he has faced criticism on domestic issues, notable health care and housing shortages, with his minority government looking under increasing pressure in parliament.
Vardakar's Fine Gael and non-party allies have relied on the support of the centrist opposition party Fianna Fail under a confidence-and-supply deal since March 2016.
But his housing minister barely survived a no confidence vote in recent weeks, with just three votes to spare, and supporters feared a possible defeat for the health minister.
Varadkar defended his domestic record, saying the country's economy - recovering after being hard hit by the global crisis and a local bank collapse in 2008 - ‘has never been stronger.’
‘Many people are frustrated about the pace of progress in health and housing,’ he admitted, promising a future focus on ‘home ownership and universal healthcare.’ But Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin said health, housing and cost of living issues needed to be addressed ‘far faster.’
‘In our view it clearly is time for a change of government and it's time for a new government that will really focus on tangible and credible improvements in health and in housing and on impacting the cost of living,’ Martin said.
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