FIANNA Fail leadership contender Micheal Martin last night dramatically resigned from Cabinet after Taoiseach Brian Cowen survived as party leader.
ut Mr Martin's longer-term chances of becoming leader were significantly strengthened by his efforts.
Major faultlines emerged for a bitter leadership battle after the election when Finance Minister Brian Lenihan sparked an angry backlash by weighing in behind Mr Cowen.
Fianna Fail and the Green Party will today discuss the timing of the general election as the pressure mounts on Mr Cowen to set a date for polling day. Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin did not tell colleagues whether she would be supporting the Taoiseach or not as she said she was voting in accordance with her conversations with Mr Cowen. After opposing Mr Cowen's leadership, Mr Martin tendered his resignation as Foreign Affairs Minister bringing an end to almost 14 years in Cabinet. Dick Roche, Peter Power and Martin Mansergh are among the frontrunners to replace him.
Ironically, Mr Martin's longer term chances of becoming leader were actually strengthened. Mr Martin said he accepted the result of the ballot, and the party would be united behind Mr Cowen in the general election campaign.
However, he gave a clear indication that he still harbours ambitions of deposing Mr Cowen, saying that the leadership of the party was "still at risk".
Supporters of Mr Cowen said the result was a landslide, but critics of the Taoiseach said it was only won by a handful of votes, with one TD putting the margin at just three.
But Mr Martin said anybody predicting the outcome must have had the benefit of "divine inspiration" as the result was a secret and the ballots were destroyed afterwards.
The Cork South-Central TD said he had a basic view that if a minister came out as publicly as he did against the Taoiseach, it would not be right to continue to serve as a minister.
"The Taoiseach continues to have my support as head of Government and I will actively support him as our leader during the upcoming election campaign," he said. "One has to make a stand and one has to force the issue in terms of the debate. It's been a very healthy debate and a very good debate," he added.
Mr Cowen said Mr Martin felt honour-bound to resign and he had reluctantly accepted it.
"But I understand he is very much of the view that this is what needs to be done to send a confirmation that there are consequences to the decision of the stand he took.
"But I want to take it clear that our conversations are amicable and he remains a very good friend," the Taoiseach said.
Mr Cowen said he had "no intention of seeking resignations from people" who opposed him in the motion of confidence. Junior Minister Billy Kelleher had also publicly stated his lack of confidence in the Taoiseach.
A total of 71 TDs were entitled to a vote and arrangements were expected to be made for Justice Minister Dermot Ahern to cast his vote from his hospital bed after his hip operation last week.
But the Fianna Fail leadership debate was overshadowed by a bitter spat over Mr Lenihan's alleged involvement in efforts to undermine Mr Cowen.
Enraged Fianna Fail TDs said Mr Lenihan's support of Mr Cowen was "not what he has been telling backbenchers" during talks on the leadership of the party. His stance provoked a tense atmosphere after what had been a mannerly leadership contest to date.
The Taoiseach's prospects of victory were strengthened by Mr Lenihan's backing, but the Finance Minister was forced to deny he was stirring up a backbench revolt and plotting a leadership heave against Mr Cowen.
"I haven't had time to organise a coup or a challenge in the last year," he said.