Cowen on tightrope as Cullen bows out
THE stability of Taoiseach Brian Cowen's embattled Coalition was further weakened last night after Martin Cullen announced he was resigning from the Cabinet and as a TD.
However, his decision to quit the Cabinet has freed up another ministerial post and paved the way for a major reshuffle.
It also clears the way for the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism to be scrapped.
But it leaves Mr Cowen with an even slimmer Dail majority as he reaches his 1,000th day in office today.
Mr Cullen's decision to quit politics also puts three by-elections on the agenda, all of which Fianna Fail are unlikely to win.
Mr Cullen last night said he had decided to resign as both a minister and a TD based on medical advice that his condition was deteriorating and the range of options for treatment and recovery were narrowing.
"I think the family all believes that, unquestionably, this is the right decision for me if I'm going to require, which I do, 100pc commitment to my health," he said.
Mr Cullen said he had suffered from a chronic back problem ever since an "extremely bad" car crash in which he broke his neck.
He said he had been lucky to survive the crash, and had even considered not running in the 2007 General Election.
Mr Cullen said, despite the pain he was suffering, the hardest thing was that he was on an awful lot of medication.
"You get to a point where it becomes very, very difficult and I don't think you can live on the volume of tablets that I've been on, which are very strong painkillers. You are only masking and allowing the trouble to continue and get worse," he said.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen said he would advise President Mary McAleese to accept Mr Cullen's resignation when he had made a decision on "other matters relating to the Government".
This is understood to be Mr Cowen's long-awaited cabinet reshuffle, which is expected to take place when he returns from his St Patrick's Day trip to the USA in two weeks' time.
Mr Cowen paid tribute to Mr Cullen for his contribution as a minister and for the great personal efforts he had made to carry out his duties "in the context of what has been a very painful condition".
Mr Cullen (56) will qualify for a full ministerial pension after serving eight years as a full cabinet minister and five years as a minister of state.
He will be entitled to €78,996 severance pay for losing his ministerial post, an annual ministerial pension of nearly €60,000 and a TD's pension.
Mr Cullen said he hoped his political legacy had not been overshadowed by the controversy over the €52m wasted on e-voting machines while he was Environment Minister. He insisted he had "no regrets".
"We all do things in politics. Sometimes we make mistakes. I'd rather to have made a mistake and done a few things than never had done anything at all. History will judge those things. I've always tried to do my job and I've enjoyed it," he said.
Mr Cullen's imminent departure will heap further pressure on Mr Cowen's Dail majority.
The worst case scenario for the coalition is an 81-81 tie in the Dail if the three independent Fianna Fail TDs were to vote with the opposition.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore paid tribute to Mr Cullen, but described his resignation as "another serious blow to this government".
"While we differed on many political issues and had some lively exchanges across the floor of the Dail, I always respected him as a politician and as an individual. Martin Cullen gave over 20 years of political service to the people of Waterford and nobody could doubt his commitment to the people who elected him," he said.
Mr Cullen expressed hope Fianna Fail would be able to retain his seat in the impending by-election, saying the party had always delivered for the South East.
But the Government is unlikely to hold the by-election soon, given that it already has to face by-elections in Donegal South West and Dublin South.
Mr Cullen's resignation is the fifth in four weeks in Leinster House. Fine Gael TD George Lee, Green Party Senator Deirdre de Burca, Defence Minister Willie O'Dea and Green Party Junior Minister Trevor Sargent all quit their roles in a period of political turmoil.
As recently as last January, Mr Cullen agreed to a request by Mr Cowen to continue so as not to destabilise the Government.
He said his decision to resign was "totally unconnected" with the impending cabinet reshuffle, adding: "Clearly, my health is not in a position to lead me to continue. I'm the sort of person that if I can't do something 100pc, I wouldn't be disingenuous and pretend."
Fine Gael arts spokeswoman Olivia Mitchell said she hoped Mr Cullen's resignation would aid his recovery.
"I wish him and his family the very best for the future," she said.