The unprecedented - but expected. That's what happened in the Republic of Ireland this past week when Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald's coalition government fell and a general election was called for Feb. 17.
Behind the events lay a long-simmering budget dispute between the coalition's Labour and Fine Gael partners. The ministers of the minority Labour Party resigned from the Cabinet Jan. 20, after the long-predicted failure of the two parties to agree on proposals for the 1987 budget. Dr. FitzGerald the next day tendered his resignation to President Patrick Hillery, who in turn dissolved the Parliament, thus opening a four-week election campaign.
This denouement came one week before the budget was due to be presented to Parliament. It marks the first time in the history of the Irish Republic that a government has failed to agree on a budget to bring before Parliament.
Even so, it had been obvious for several months that the prospects for agreement between Labour and the major government party, the center-right Fine Gael, on the budget were close to zero. The failure to agree on a budget, and the consequent collapse of the government, though in themselves dramatic events, were the culmination of four years of failure to overcome the country's acute economic problems.
The coalition was elected in November 1982 on a platform that included a promise to eliminate the budget deficit. Far from being eliminated, the deficit and the government's domestic and foreign debt have grown consistently. In 1986, the deficit came to roughly $2 billion, 8.5 percent of Gross National Product (GNP). Even with the proposed cuts that led to the breakup of the government, the 1987 deficit would have been $1 billion, 7.4 percent of GNP. Servicing of debt, mostly foreign, will cost about $3.5 million in 1987. Ireland's foreign indebtedness per capita is the highest in the developed world.
Meanwhile unemployment has risen to a record 19 percent. Emigration is reckoned to exceed 30,000 a year; it is believed there may be 50,000 to 100,000 illegal Irish immigrants in the US, including many highly educated and skilled young people. Crippling taxes and lack of opportunity have also brought about a huge ``brain drain'' to Britain and - in the case of those who speak foreign languages - other European countries.
Efforts by Fine Gael to curb public expenditures have been rejected by the Labour Party on the grounds that cuts would hurt the poorest sectors of the population. Several months ago Labour decided that it would fight the next election as an independent party and would not join another coalition.
Fine Gael has now belatedly returned to a program of relative severity. The budget proposals set forth Jan. 20 by Finance Minister John Bruton, a noted right-winger and a possible successor to FitzGerald as party leader, called for cuts of some $300 million. It had long been clear that Labour would not agree to the provisions in them for cutting the allocation to health and social security. Mr. Bruton also increased taxes on a number of commodities, including petrol.
Most political observers here take the view that the presentation of such harsh measures on the eve of an election comes close to political suicide. All recent opinion polls suggest that the main opposition party - Fianna Fail, a populist or catch-all party led by former Prime Minister Charles Haughey - will win an overall majority in the general election.
Opinion polls show 50 percent or better declaring their intention to vote for Fianna Fail. As the election campaign begins, they are heavily favored to win easily.