DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland’s coalition government avoided a confidence vote by the narrowest of parliamentary margins on Thursday and its defence minister resigned following allegations of perjury.
The double blow underlined the fragility of a government dependent on stability if it is to succeed in lifting the country out of a deep economic recession.
After a vote on legislation linked to a finance bill was tied, the parliamentary speaker stepped in to cast a tie-breaking vote for the first time in nearly two decades.
A defeat would have triggered a confidence vote in the government because the procedural issue was supplementary to the finance bill, a parliamentary spokesman said.
The finance bill is needed to enforce Ireland’s budget, whose severe spending cuts to tackle recession have helped to bring about a modest rise in public support for the government, opinion polls have found.
Several members of the government failed to turn up to Thursday’s debate, including Defence Minister Willie O’Dea, who late on Thursday resigned.
“I have come to the regrettable conclusion that my continuing in office will only serve to distract from the important and vital work of government in addressing the serious challenges that the country continues to face at this time,” he said in a statement.
He has denied allegations he committed perjury, but told RTE News he had made a “bad and stupid mistake” when he gave false information to a journalist last year about a Sinn Fein councillor.
“I freely admit,” he said. “I made a bad mistake. I’ve paid heavily for it.”
O’Dea survived a vote of no confidence on Wednesday, but Dan Boyle, chairman of the coalition junior partner Green Party, said he still did not have confidence in the defence minister.
“His situation is compromised. Probably be a few chapters in this story yet,” Boyle wrote in his Twitter site.
Following the defence minister’s resignation, Green Party leader John Gormley said O’Dea’s position had become untenable, but the Green Party still backed the government.
“The issue has already taken up too much energy and attention at a time when crucial economic challenges face the Irish people,” he said in a statement.
“We are committed to continuing to work with our partners in government to face those challenges.”
Boyle had repeatedly warned last year his party could break off the alliance with Prime Minister Brian Cowen’s Fianna Fail party, which would have triggered an election, because of the strains of trying to fix the economy.
But December’s austerity budget was voted through by a comfortable margin and the Green party said early this year, the government faced a period of increased stability.
Opinion polls have seen a modest increase in support as members of the public have grudgingly accepted the need for the government’s deep cuts in spending.
The parliamentary spokesman confirmed Thursday was the first time the speaker had used his casting vote since 1992.
Additional reporting by Andras Gergely and Padraic Halpin; Editing by Jon Hemming