DUBLIN Ireland's Labour party topped an opinion poll for the first time ever on Thursday, pushing the governing party into third place in a move that would radically alter Irish politics if it were repeated at a general election.
A parliamentary election is not due until 2012 but the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll indicated that Labour would for the first time lead a coalition government with the traditional main opposition party Fine Gael.
While Ireland has been praised by investors for pushing through some of the earliest and sharpest fiscal reforms in western Europe, Prime Minister Brian Cowen's Fianna Fail party has remained hugely unpopular throughout its deep recession.
Support for Cowen's centre-left party fell by five percentage points to 17 percent while Labour, which has only ever governed as a junior coalition partner and last did so between 1992 and 1997, rose by eight points to 32 percent.
Centre-right Fine Gael, which observers have assumed would benefit from the government's unpopularity, slipped four points to a two-year low of 28 percent as party leader Enda Kenny's satisfaction rating fell further, by seven to 24 percent.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, seen in successive polls as a more credible future Prime Minister than Kenny, saw his rating hold steady at 46 percent while Cowen's slumped eight points to 18 percent.
"I won't walk away from my responsibility," Cowen, who faces and is expected to survive a parliamentary confidence vote in his premiership on Tuesday, told national broadcaster RTE.
"I am accountable for what I do and I'll face that accountability at the end of my term."
The poll sampling 1,000 voters was taken before the publication of a report by the central bank governor criticising government policies in the run-up to the country's banking crisis that led to opposition calls for Tuesday's vote.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)