Pain-racked Cullen on brink of quitting Cabinet and retiring
Tourism Minister Martin Cullen is believed to be on the brink of standing down from the Cabinet and announcing his retirement from politics at the next General Election.
The minister's resignation from office will free up another cabinet position for Taoiseach Brian Cowen in his impending reshuffle.
Mr Cullen's ill health is understood to be forcing his premature resignation, but he was expected to be dropped by Mr Cowen anyway.
The minister's failure to show up at a major tourism industry conference yesterday, caused by his worsening back problem, merely added to the speculation about his future.
And his withdrawal from the conference programme for the Irish Hotels Federation conference also contradicted Mr Cullen's assertation his back complaint was not an impediment to doing his job.
"The minister couldn't travel to Galway today, unfortunately, for the Irish Hotels Federation event due to the ongoing medical condition of his back," his press adviser said.
The Irish Independent understands that at a cabinet meeting in January, Mr Cullen was in such pain he had to be helped to an adjoining room.
The minister was laid down carefully on the flat of his back on the carpet and then carried carefully out of Government Buildings and driven home.
His dramatic exit from one of the first cabinet meetings after the Christmas holiday followed a change in his treatment for the chronic back pain, which has dogged him for most of his adult life.
Local sources in Waterford told this newspaper the minister was not only going to resign from Cabinet but also signal his intention to not contest the next General Election.
Regardless of his cabinet status, Mr Cullen's department is expected to be disbanded and its functions merged elsewhere, with tourism thought to be linked to trade again and the arts and sport portfolios joined up with other cultural posts.
Within government circles, there is also talk of the rural affairs brief being moved to the Department of Agriculture, similar to the set-up in Northern Ireland, and fisheries going in with defence.
Junior Minister Tony Killeen is responsible for fisheries and he is currently in the middle of EU negotiations. He is the favourite to become the new Defence Minister after Willie O'Dea's resignation.
Coalition sources say they now don't expect Mr Cowen to conduct his reshuffle this week.
And there are also doubts being cast over whether Mr Cowen will do it next week, as he is heading to the US for his St Patrick's Day visit and a trade mission next Friday week.
"Would he do it on the eve of going to the US? It's not Brian Cowen's style to do something and then disappear," a senior source said.
If Mr Cowen puts off the reshuffle until after St Patrick's Day, he would announce it before the Green Party conference at the end of the month.
The Taoiseach has discussed the reshuffle with Green Party leader John Gormley and the pair are expected to have further talks this morning before the cabinet meeting.
The Cabinet will discuss the latest unemployment figures, tax returns for last month and the next round of spending cuts for 2011.
Ministers have to start identifying €1.5bn in new cuts, arising from the Bord Snip report.
Questioned at the IHF conference in Galway, Mr Cowen repeatedly declined to disclose his thinking on the future shape of his cabinet.
When asked directly if Mr Cullen was resigning on health grounds, Mr Cowen said: "I'm not engaging in any speculation in relation to these matters."