Noel Dempsey's decision to retire before the general election is not a surprise. Like Dermot Ahern, who is retiring on health grounds, he will earn more as a ministerial pensioner than as a backbencher. His decision, and the likelihood that many more of the present cabinet will not contest the next general election, makes the need to go to the country even more urgent. Some estimate that as many as 15 FF backbenchers who provide the government with its majority may decide to retire.

To a public already totally disaffected with politics and politicians, this exodus of the damned looks like yet another betrayal of trust. These ministers and TDs will have voted through the budget, the banking resolution legislation and the IMF /EU terms and conditions, all of which have far-reaching implications for people's lives for many years to come, and then, early next year will walk away from all responsibility for it.

Last week's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed that 92% of the population is dissatisfied with the government. Translated into seats, the polls could mean Fianna Fáil down to 26 and the Greens wiped out.

Yet despite the desperate economic and psychological state of the country and the clear desire by its citizens for a new government, there is now talk that this government may try to stretch its term into March and, according to Frank Fahey, possibly even April or May.

If it is sincere about taking hard decisions in the national interest, it must take the hardest of them all for itself and set an election date.