President Mary McAleese today dissolved the Dáil ahead of an expected general election on May 24.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern travelled to the Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin’s Phoenix Park at 8am to formally request the dissolution.
President McAleese confirmed she signed the Proclamation of Dissolution ahead of a new 30th Dáil being established on June 14.
Mr Ahern is fighting to be re-elected for a third term which would make him the most successful Taoiseach since Eamon de Valera.
“In the weeks ahead I pledge to give the Irish people the campaign they deserve: a campaign of issues and policies, not insults and attacks,” he said.
“I am more interested in attacking problems than attacking people.”
The Fianna Fáil leader took the country by surprise this morning with most politicians and observers believing he would call the election during the week.
But an official trip to the United States by President McAleese, leaving Dublin this morning, meant he would have to wait another week if the 29th Dáil was not dissolved over the weekend.
“This election is about Ireland’s future, protecting the progress we have made over the last ten years and building on it,” Mr Ahern said.
“I call on every citizen to participate in our democracy by voting on Election Day.
“No one knows what the outcome of this election will be. The people have a real choice and two very different alternatives before them.
“That choice will frame Ireland’s future, and the consequences of this election will be felt for many years to come,” he added.
The unexpected announcement sent shock waves through political parties scrambling together to fire their own opening salvoes in what could be a very close contest.
An opinion poll this week showed the alternative Fine Gael-Labour Government had moved four points ahead of the ruling Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition.
The timing of polling day, the same month as Mr Ahern is to carry out a number of historic engagements marking the seismic progress in the North, has already sparked controversy.
The Taoiseach will attend the opening of the restored power-sharing Executive in Belfast on May 8 and visit the symbolic Battle of the Boyne site with unionist leader Ian Paisley on May 11.
Four days later he is expected to be the first Irish leader to address the joint Houses of Parliament in Westminster, casting him in the role of an international statesman.
The opposition – led by the Labour Party – has criticised the timing of the events and demanded the Westminster speech be postponed until after the country goes to the polls.