After six-and-a-half years of controversy and crisis in one of government’s toughest jobs, Ms Harney insisted it would be “inappropriate” for her to remain in the top team as she would not be contesting the looming general election.
The move increased speculation the Taoiseach may attempt a major “last gasp” reshuffle which could see the three other Cabinet members who have announced they will be retiring from the Dáil replaced before polling day, as well as a new Foreign Affairs Minister installed after rebel Micheál Martin resigned.
Such a move would see around a third of the Cabinet change and provoke political uproar so close to an election. Justice Minister Dermot Ahern offered his resignation to the Taoiseach last week.
Green leader John Gormley questioned whether a major shake-up would be wise and insisted his party would not support that kind of wide-ranging reshuffle if it was intended to lengthen the lifetime of the Government beyond March when he insisted a Dáil poll must be held.
The opposition warned that any major pre-election Cabinet makeover would be a “cynical” move, and even some senior FF figures are believed to fear it could provoke a voter backlash.
Junior Ministers Peter Power and Dara Calleary were tipped for promotion to the top team after Ms Harney revealed she had tendered her resignation to the Taoiseach last week, but he was still considering it.
Mary Hanafin may be dispatched from Cabinet in any shake-up for her public criticism of the Taoiseach.
If Mr Cowen did decide to make a clean sweep, then Mr Ahern, Noel Dempsey at Transport and Tony Killeen at Defence would also go as they are retiring at the election.
However, Mr Cowen would face a tough time getting Dáil approval for new ministers with such a knife-edge majority.