Outgoing Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has said she is stepping down “to avoid an unwelcome and potentially destabilising general election at this historically critical time”, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar defends her ministerial record.
Ms Fitzgerald is to remain on as a TD but will no longer serve in the Cabinet as Minister for Business.
In a statement this afternoon, she vowed to “vindicate my good name at the Charleton Tribunal, without causing any further distraction to the work of the government”.
“I decided that my continuation in office risks destabilising that good work, and so I have decided to step-down so that this work may continue and the country can be spared an unnecessary election,” she said.
Ms Fitzgerald added that she “acted acted correctly in difficult circumstances and, in fact, did everything that I could to support the search for truth and protect whistleblowers”.
Paying tribute to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar she thanked him for his support as controversy grew in recent days.
“I would like to thank the Taoiseach for showing the same courage and determination to protect my good name that he displayed three years ago when he stood-up and defended the reputation of Maurice McCabe. What I admire most about the Taoiseach is that he has always believed in doing what was right – not what was popular or politically expedient.
“I will always be grateful for his confidence and support and for giving me the opportunity to serve in a government that is making a real difference in people’s lives at a critical time in our history.”
Addressing the Dáil chamber today Mr Varadkar said he hoped the Charleton Tribunal will allow Ms Fitzgerald's good name to be vindicated.
"It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full or fair hearing," he said.
Former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald departs from Government buildings after she gave her resignation to the Taoiseach
Picture: Gerry Mooney
"She was one of the most reforming Ministers for Justice we have ever had," he said.
In his first statement since Ms Fitzgerald announced her intention to step aside, he also nominated himself as Business Minister for a temporary period while he decides on a replacement for Ms Fitzgerald.
He also reiterated his support of his party colleague.
"While all of the facts still remain unclear, there are a few things that we do know. Frances had no hand act or part in the former Commissioner’s legal strategy, did not devise or guide it in any way. She was advised by her own officials that she had no function in the matter. The Attorney General has since confirmed this advice and further advised that she would have been acting improperly and inappropriately if she had sought to interfere with the work of the O’Higgins Commission," he said.
"We know from the e-mails, that Frances Fitzgerald had no knowledge of it until the Commission’s hearing were already underway and that her knowledge of the detail was limited.
"I hope calm, measured reading of the evidence will show that the Tánaiste acted appropriately, and I hope the Charleton Tribunal will establish this conclusively in the weeks ahead, and that she will have her good name vindicated. I expect her to continue to play a full role in political and public life including at the highest level," he added.
He said a "drip, drip" of information led to “a feeding frenzy” and all this made it impossible for her to get a fair hearing.
The Fine Gael leader confirmed that reform will be implemented in the Department of Justice on the basis of the Toland Report.
He also referred to the "human cost" of the recent developments.
"There is a human cost today - not just to Frances Fitzgerald and her family and colleagues, but also to Maurice McCabe and his family," he said.
Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin, whose decision to lodge a motion of no confidence in Tanáiste was instrumental in hastening her departure from the office, said he believed she had taken the "right decision".
He has also called for a statement from current Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.
Mr Varadkar confirmed that the minister is to apologise to the Dáil for the way his department has handled material relating to controversy which has cost Ms Fitzgerald her job.
He also said the issue of unanswered questions from TDs will be addressed with questions being answered in full.
In her contribution to the Dáil this afternoon Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald said:
"This was the very first test of your leadership Taoiseach, and you failed in a very spectacular fashion."
People Before Profit TD, Richard Boyd Barrett, challenged the Taoiseach to explain why he protected the Tánaiste “right up to the last minute” even though you knew about crucial Justice Department e-mails from last weekend. “This place never ceases to amaze me,” Mr Boyd Barrett said.
The Taoiseach said Mr Boyd Barrett began by saying he was happy people would not suffer a Christmas election and ended by saying an election was needed. He again stressed his regret that Ms Fitzgerald had to resign.
Independents4Change TD, Mick Wallace, said he had long campaigned for change to policing and justice and reform of the Justice Department.
"Taoiseach, I have no interest in kicking you today or Frances (Fitzgerald) either for that matter," the Wexford TD said.
Mr Wallace said it was an honour to represent the people of his own area but also extremely frustrating to be a TD.
He said the McCabe controversy had led to the departure of two Garda Commissioners, two Justice Ministers and other senior people - but whistleblowers still did not have proper protection.
"When are we going to change what we do?" he asked the Taoiseach.
Mr Varadkar said he shared Mr Wallace's frustration about the slow pace of change. He listed the many inquiries and investigations which had been established and he promised changes.
Earlier Dublin Mid-West TD Ms Fitzgerald said that throughout her career she “always sought to act with integrity and responsibility, and that is why I have decided on this occasion to put the national interest ahead of my own personal reputation”.
“I have always believed in fairness and equality and these principles have guided my work as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, as Minister for Justice and Equality, and now as Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation.”
The 67-year-old concluded by thanking all those who worked with her over the years.
“I am so grateful for the incredible support I received from family, friends, supporters, staff, and my constituents in Dublin Mid-West. And I look forward to continuing to serve all the people of Dublin Mid-West,” she said.
Ms Fitzgerald finished her statement by saying she will be making “no further comment”.
She announced her resignation at 11.15am to a Cabinet- with sources present saying she showed very little emotion.
The jobs minister has been under intense pressure since the release of fresh emails last night.
Sources said Ms Fitzgerald was "pointed" in her contribution to Cabinet.
"There’s no doubt that she believes she will be proven innocent after the Charleton Tribunal does its work," said one one.
While the mood in Fine Gael is at its lowest since Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach, one minister said there is still some sympathy for the situation facing Ms Fitzgerald.
"The world is not fair," said the minister.
Her decision to stand aside as Tanáiste is likely to remove the threat of an election before Christmas.
However, Mr Varadkar is facing a major backlash from within his own party for his handling of the controversy in recent days.