DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland’s scandal-hit deputy prime minister resigned on Tuesday, averting a government collapse and potential snap election that had threatened to complicate Brexit talks next month between Britain and the European Union.
Opposition parties had demanded Frances Fitzgerald step down after the release of fresh documents about her disputed handling of a police whistleblower who alleged corruption in the force.
Fianna Fail, the main opposition party, which props up Fine Gael Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s minority government, said her resignation meant a December election would be avoided. It had warned it might force a snap poll if Fitzgerald refused to quit.
“Today I made the decision to tender my resignation to the Taoiseach (prime minister), stepping down with immediate effect,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.
“I have decided on this occasion to put the national interest ahead of my own personal reputation. I believe it is necessary to take this decision to avoid an unwelcome and potentially destabilising general election at this historically critical time.”
Ireland’s political crisis exploded in the run-up to a key Brexit summit next month at which Varadkar is set to play a major role. He must tell fellow EU leaders whether he believes sufficient progress has been made on the future of the border between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
The border — the only land frontier between Britain and the EU — is one of three issues Brussels wants broadly resolved before it decides whether to move talks on Britain’s divorce from the EU onto a second phase about trade, as Britain wants.
While Varadkar has likely avoided the prospect of having to travel to Brussels in a caretaker capacity, his handling of the crisis has badly damaged him, his governing Fine Gael party and relations with its Fianna Fail opponents.
While Fitzgerald’s ministerial colleagues continued to back her in public ahead of the cabinet meeting at which she stood down, Tuesday’s newspaper front pages were full of quotes from unnamed Fine Gael lawmakers and ministers saying she had to go.
Some Fine Gael members who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said they were furious with Varadkar and Fitzgerald’s handling of the crisis, having been forced to spend four days strongly defending the deputy prime minister since it broke.
Members of the opposition Labour and Sinn Fein parties and political analysts said as Fitzgerald resigned that an election was still likely to follow in the next three or four months.
“Whatever happens today, the timeline of this administration is very much foreshortened by the events of the last two weeks,” Labour leader Brendan Howlin told national broadcaster RTE.
“I think right now he (Varadkar) has probably lost the dressing room, you can see that in today’s newspapers, and he’s done some damage to himself and the stability of the government too,” added Howlin, a former cabinet colleague of Varadkar.
The crisis was the first major test of the 38-year-old prime minister who succeeded Enda Kenny in June. With a reputation as a straight-talker, he has been likened to French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by colleagues excited at the prospect of a generational shift.
While an opinion poll on Saturday gave Fine Gael a one-point lead over Fianna Fail, bookmaker Paddy Power said on Tuesday that it made Fianna Fail slight favourites to win the most seats at the next election.
The two centre-right parties are fierce rivals but disagree little on policy. A three-year confidence and supply agreement between them is due to run until this time next year.
“I think there is damage (but) nobody is enhanced by this debacle. I don’t think either party comes out of it particularly well,” said Theresa Reidy, a politics lecturer at University College Cork, referring to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
“But Fine Gael are in government so they are more damaged by it.”
Editing by Catherine Evans