TELEVISION star Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh will not be returning to RTE for the next year, according to close friends.
After over two decades working for the broadcaster, the 38-year-old-star is making plans for the career break as she prepares to take the state broadcaster to the Labour Court in a new twist to the Afternoon Show saga.
Blathnaid is planning to leave the bright lights of television after a stressful year of bullying allegations and health complaints during which she had to face ongoing media speculation that she was at the centre of a 'bullying row'.
The news comes despite RTE continuing to insist this weekend that Blathnaid will be reunited on the couch with her co-star Sheana Keane for the sixth series of the show.
A question mark also remains as to whether or not Blathnaid will carry out her minor role as a judge on The All Ireland Talent Show, as announced at the new season of RTE television.
Speaking about her plans, a family friend of the Ni Chofaighs explained: "Blathnaid has had a lot of health problems this year. She has had trouble with a twisted gut that keeps recurring and has had to have a procedure for it only recently.
"RTE says she will be back on the judging panel from The All Ireland Talent show and I don't know how that's going to pan out, but it's my understanding that she is going to take a good bit of time off from the small screen."
The source added: "I heard that, before RTE even announced the new line-up, she was making her own plans to take up to a year out from television work."
Media watchers say Blathnaid's absence will be starkly noted as the long-serving star has built up a huge fan base.
"Blathnaid is a very popular presenter. People seem to warm to her easily and she's developed almost a cult following among viewers. There will be a lot of people who won't be very happy if she's absent from their screens."
Speculation over the alleged infighting on the programme has been rife since Sheana disappeared from the show following the revelation that she had taken a case against Blathnaid for alleged bullying in the workplace.
Well-placed sources say Sheana sent an explicit letter to RTE detailing her feelings about how she was being made to feel while working on the show.
An internal enquiry was held to discuss the views of both parties and when one of the parties was said to be "extremely unhappy" with the outcome the investigation was then brought before senior management in Montrose.
As an RTE source explained: "Each division has an internal system for dealing with bullying. There was an internal examination of the case within the programme division-- and when one party was unhappy with the verdict, she requested a further examination which was heard at corporate level."
The source continued: "Three people sat on the board and took written depositions from both parties and a report was submitted by the RTE Director who adjudicated on the first enquiry."
The outcome of the senior-level inquiry was said to be unsatisfactory for one of the parties -- and now the case is reported to be heading for the Labour Court.
Last week, Sheana Keane was announced as part of the new line-up for The Afternoon Show alongside Sile Seoige -- described by RTE as a 'temporary replacement' for the flame-haired star. Sporting a new blonde look, Sheana was said by colleagues to look "refreshed and back to her good old self" as she prepared to retake her place on the couch.
"She looked fantastic. I haven't seen her in such good form in a long time. It was great to see," said one friend, who spoke to Sheana shortly after the announcement.
"She's been through a lot in the past year and she seems to be back to herself."
Sheana, who completed an MA in social and organisational psychology, which is the study of people working together, gave up her established career as a psychologist and management consultant in favour of a career in television.
Married to teenage sweetheart Jonathan Forrest, who runs a successful company called Cybercom and who met the future RTE star during their days together in UCD, the couple live in Dublin 4 with their two children, Isabelle, 4, and Arthur, 2.
Before reports of bullying broke in the media, presenter Trevor Keegan, who worked with both Blathnaid and Sheana on The Afternoon Show described Sheana as "a bit introspective" and "quite holistic in her approach"; while, speaking of her co-host, he said, "Blathnaid is tempestuous and fiery; a real journalist head on her."
One staff member who worked with the two women on the last season of the show explained how the two interacted on set, right up until the moment Sheana absented herself from the show.
"Whatever was going on behind the scenes, we certainly didn't see it on the floor. Both Blathnaid and Sheana are consummate professionals, they take the job very seriously and they didn't let their differences spill out onto the studio floor." The source added: "I think we were all completely shocked when news of a rift broke."
RTE has refused to comment on reports that Blathnaid is suing the station.
The Afternoon Show returns tomorrow from 4pm.