Taoiseach Brian Cowen was tonight facing calls from within his own ranks to resign after plans for a Cabinet reshuffle almost collapsed the Government.
Junior coalition partners the Green Party forced Mr Cowen into a hugely embarrassing U-turn on attempts to promote members of his own Fianna Fáil party into senior ministerial posts.
The Taoiseach also called a General Election for March 11 during a day of extraordinary political developments sparked by an apparently orchestrated Cabinet exodus that plunged the Government into chaos and confusion.
Green Party leader John Gormley said he was kept in the dark about the resignations last night of Health Minister Mary Harney, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, Defence Minister Tony Killeen and Transport Minister Noel Dempsey.
The departure of Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin after a failed heave against Mr Cowen the previous day and the dramatic standing down of Mr Cowen’s close friend and Enterprise Minister Batt O’Keeffe this morning left the Cabinet nearly half empty.
After learning about the developments on a morning news bulletin, Mr Gormley warned the Taoiseach of his “surprise and dismay” and called crisis talks in which the Greens insisted they would pull the plug on the beleaguered coalition.
“When you have a lack of communication and mis-communication, of course it erodes trust, it’s not easy,” Mr Gormley said.
Mr Cowen admitted he had planned to elevate Fianna Fáil rank and file into the suddenly vacated posts – just weeks before voters go to the polls.
The Greens’ veto strong-armed the Taoiseach into a climb-down.
But Mr Cowen denied claims he was attempting a stunt to fill the high-profile roles with hand-picked election candidates.
“It’s not a political stunt actually. It’s about accountability,” Mr Cowen said.
Opposition leaders accused the Taoiseach of having lost all authority and sending out a signal that the country was disintegrating into turmoil.
Despite Mr Cowen’s pledge to continue in Government with the Greens, after agreeing to reassign the empty portfolios to remaining ministers, his own grassroots were openly plotting against him, even though he won a confidence vote just days ago.
Junior Fianna Fáil minister Conor Lenihan claimed the Taoiseach had lost the confidence of his party and the Irish people and called on him to stand down.
“It would be in the best interests of the party if Brian Cowen moved on because it is not working out,” he said.
Mr Gormley insisted he told the Taoiseach last Sunday his party could not support the promotion of several Fianna Fáil TDs into Cabinet posts so close to the election.
The pair met for talks again yesterday along with senior party colleagues, during which Mr Gormley said he made it clear they would not accept the proposed reshuffle.
Mr Gormley said he was shocked when presented with the “fait accompli” and warned his party would vote against the new, short-term appointments, effectively bringing down the coalition.
He said other senior Fianna Fail ministers were also against the plans.
Mary Hanafin, Tourism Minister and now also heading up Enterprise, confirmed her objections.
After scenes of disarray and disruption, during which the Dáil had to be suspended for two hours, Mr Cowen was compelled to make a statement to restore order in Leinster House.
The Taoiseach announced the coalition would continue in power until the Finance Bill, giving effect to Budget 2011, and other important legislation is passed ahead of an election in seven weeks’ time.
No Green TD attended the Dáil chamber for the statement.
Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, already in charge of education, will take on health, Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith takes on justice, Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv has been given the defence brief, and Pat Carey, Minister for Gaeltacht, Community and Rural Affairs, has control of transport.
Ms Hanafin, who voted against Mr Cowen remaining leader of the ruling Fianna Fáil party in this week’s leadership challenge, has been asked to takeover from Mr O’Keeffe while the Taoiseach has already seized the foreign affairs brief.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said no new ministers were appointed because the Government was afraid of putting it to a vote.
“And the fact the Greens are not represented in the chamber on this date speaks for itself,” he said.
Mr Kenny said the Government was also unable to fill its own frontbench during the announcement despite more than 20 ministers and former ministers on the backbenches.
“It’s almost one for everyone in the audience,” he said.
Eamon Gilmore, the Labour leader, accused Mr Cowen of a cynical attempt to cling on to power through a major Cabinet reshuffle and appointment of new ministers.
“The Taoiseach attempted a stroke and it backfired,” he said.
“No longer, it would appear, has he the authority as head of Government to do the most essential things that a head of Government does in a democracy – which is to appoint the members of his Government.”
Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said it was beyond doubt that Mr Cowen was forced into backing down on plans to appoint new Fianna Fail ministers during the day.
“A lame duck Taoiseach, with a lame duck Government,” he said.