The country may be facing a snap general election in January after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar refused to sack his Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, over the Maurice McCabe email saga.
It came after Fianna Fáil decided to table a motion of no confidence in her, effectively ending the confidence and supply deal, which has underpinned the minority Government for 18 months.
Just four months into Mr Varadkar’s premiership, Fianna Fáil called for Ms Fitzgerald’s resignation after inaccurate information led the Taoiseach to inadvertently mislead the Dáil on several occasions.
Mr Varadkar was greeted with “resounding applause” at a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party called for 10pm last night to rally support for Ms Fitzgerald, where members voted unanimously to stand behind Ms Fitzgerald.
The Taoiseach told his TDs and senators to prepare for an election in mid-January. One minister suggested it could take place on Friday, January 12.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has called an emergency meeting of his front bench for 9.30am today to discuss the full-blown political crisis.
Several ministers, speaking to the Irish Examiner, said an election earlier than that would cause major complications, as it would see Mr Varadkar attending a Brexit summit in Brussels in mid-December as a “lame-duck” Taoiseach and prevent the passage of the finance bill.
At an earlier meeting of Fine Gael ministers, Mr Varadkar told his colleagues he would not sack Ms Fitzgerald, did not expect her to resign, and did not want her to resign.
Mr Varadkar told ministers he did not want a general election but would not allowed the Tánaiste to be thrown under a bus. He said he was “fully behind our colleague, who acted honourably at all times”.
He added that he would not be “throwing her to the wolves” on “some trumped-up charge from Sinn Féin”.
Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman Martin Leydon said: “What we have seen from both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil today is a political stunt, pure and simple. We will not allow the opposition bully us.
“Sinn Féin is attempting to undermine the work of the Charleton Tribunal, which was set up by the Fine Gael-led Government to investigate the treatment of Maurice McCabe.”
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said: “It is Fianna Fáil’s decision as to whether there is an election. To have an election now would be entirely irresponsible. The confidence and supply is a deal between us and Fianna Fáil. If they do not vote confidence in the Tánaiste, then they are breaching the agreement and we can’t have a government.”
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan also became embroiled in the latest scandal when it was revealed that he was told of the email a full week before the Taoiseach was informed.
Despite having knowledge of the email, Mr Flanagan sat at the side of the Taoiseach as he gave incorrect information under questioning in the Dáil on November 14, claiming the Department of Justice had “not been able to find any record of being informed before the fact of the legal strategy the commissioner was going to pursue”.
Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman, Jim O’Callaghan, said the party is ready to fight an election should Ms Fitzgerald refuse to quit.
The Independent Alliance last night threw its support behind the Tánaiste, with a senior minister saying “if there is an election, so be it”.
In the Dáil, the Tánaiste made a last-ditch, passionate attempt to exonerate herself, denying claims that she tried to suppress the email which detailed a legal strategy to discredit Sgt McCabe.
Sinn Féin decided to put down a motion of no confidence after their deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said: “She failed Maurice McCabe and it is now abundantly clear that it is time for the Tánaiste to go.”
Mr Martin spoke with Mr Varadkar for a second time last night in 24 hours, reiterating that Ms Fitzgerald must go.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved