DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland’s minority government looked set to collapse on Friday after the party propping it up submitted a motion of no confidence in the deputy prime minister, weeks before a summit on Britain’s plans to leave the European Union.
The crisis is likely to lead to an election next month or in January and may complicate the Dec. 14-15 Brexit summit.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is due to play a major role in the talks, telling EU leaders whether Ireland believes sufficient progress has been made on the future border between EU-member Ireland and Britain’s province of Northern Ireland.
The border is one of three issues Brussels wants broadly resolved before it decides whether to move the talks onto a second phase about trade, as Britain wants.
Varadkar is now likely to go into the summit as a lame duck prime minister or in the middle of an election campaign.
The head of opposition party Fianna Fail Micheal Martin said his party had submitted a motion of no-confidence in Deputy Prime Minister Frances Fitzgerald over her handling of a legal case involving a police whistleblower.
Martin told state broadcaster RTE an election “can be avoided if the government takes action” by asking Fitzgerald to resign. But the government said this would not happen.
Varadkar and Martin are due to meet later on Friday.
“At a time when issues and decisions will need to be made that will reverberate in our country for decades to come, the prospect of either an election taking place or a government not being in place afterwards is actually unconscionable,” Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told RTE.
“These are historic decisions … The agenda that is at play here is one of political interest. We need to be aware of the consequences of the approach that Fianna Fail are taking here,” the usually calm Donohoe fumed.
Asked if Varadkar could seek to dissolve parliament on Friday, Donohoe said that was a matter for the prime minister.
Junior Finance Minister Michael D‘Arcy told Reuters he believed there would be an election before Christmas and a source familiar with the party’s planning said it had begun to make preparations on Friday for an election.
As well as the border, the other issues Brussels wants resolved before talks move on to trade arrangements are Britain’s financial settlement on leaving the bloc and the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier assured Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney on Friday that the EU would defend Dublin’s position in talks with Britain over the coming weeks.
“Strong solidarity with Ireland,” Barnier wrote on Twitter. “Irish issues are EU issues.”
Coveney told parliament on Thursday the government was not yet ready to allow the talks to move on to trade issues and needed more clarity from London.
Fianna Fail’s Martin said Varadkar could still take part in the EU summit and that parliament would be united in supporting him. But the collapse would inevitably distract Varadkar and could undermine his standing during the talks.
University College Dublin politics professor David Farrell said Varadkar may be tempted to take a hard line against the United Kingdom in the talks in a bid to shore up support among voters who are overwhelmingly against Brexit.
“I suppose the only card he can try and play to distract from the crazy shenanigans around the causes of this election is leadership in Europe,” he said.
An election in December or January would be dominated by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, two center-right parties that differ little on policy but have been bitter foes for decades.
But it would also present an opportunity for Irish nationalists Sinn Fein to see if leader Gerry Adam’s decision last week to step down will boost its support. While Sinn Fein has said it wants to enter government, the two largest parties have ruled out doing a deal with the party, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Since Varadkar’s appointment as Fine Gael leader six months ago, his party has narrowly led Fianna Fail in opinion polls that suggest both parties would increase their support but struggle to form anything but another minority government.
The Fianna Fail move comes after Fitzgerald admitted she was made aware of an attempt to discredit a police whistleblower in a 2015 email, but failed to act. Fine Gael say she adhered to due process.
The case relates to a whistleblower who alleged widespread misconduct in the force. His treatment by the authorities led in 2014 to the resignations of the then police commissioner and justice minister.
Editing by Janet Lawrence