Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar arrives at the launch of the FemFest conference in Dublin, Ireland, November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Leo Varadkar in Dublin on Saturday © Reuters

Leo Varadkar is battling to save his minority Irish government in the middle of crucial Brexit talks about the border with Northern Ireland after a weekend of fruitless talks.

The Irish prime minister has rejected calls from Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s largest opposition party, for the departure of Frances Fitzgerald, his deputy, over a police scandal. The row has upended the voting agreement that enables Mr Varadkar’s government to enact laws.

Ms Fitzgerald faces a Fianna Fáil no-confidence motion on Tuesday. Mr Varadkar has threatened to call a pre-Christmas election if the vote goes ahead.

“Can an election be avoided? I think it is possible but I think it’s 50:50,” said a senior government figure. “It’s a fairly delicate situation between the two parties at the moment and we’re talking to each other. The bottom line is that neither party wants an election.”

After four days of talks, there is no still sign of a breakthrough in a dispute that centres on a legal strategy used by police chiefs to discredit a whistleblower who exposed malpractice in the force.

Mr Varadkar has urged Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil’s leader, to break the impasse by asking a sitting judicial inquiry to report in January on the justice department’s knowledge of the strategy. Ms Fitzgerald was justice minister at the time and stands accused of knowing about the police chiefs’ plan but doing nothing to avert it. She insists she did not know about it, has no memory of a damaging email sent to her in May 2015 that has just come to light and had in any case no power to intervene as the affair was under investigation.

The justice ministry on Sunday acknowledged that the then chief of police had spoken by phone with a senior justice official about a dispute with the whistleblower. This call took place around the time the email was sent. “We have no records of [Ms Fitzgerald] having being informed about it [the phone call],” said a government official.

The taoiseach’s spokesman said the talks had reached a sensitive point. “There is no question of the tánaiste [deputy prime minister] being asked to resign,” said Mr Varadkar’s spokesman. Mr Martin’s spokesman said that contact was expected to continue on Monday. “Both sides are clear in not wanting an election,” he said. Still, many in Mr Varadkar’s circle believe an election is inevitable.

The affair has disrupted the taoiseach’s diplomatic offensive to avert a hard border with Northern Ireland in Brexit talks. Mr Varadkar says he can attend a key Brussels summit with full executive powers next month even if an election is under way. Government figures are discussing the possibility of an election in the week beginning December 18, days after the Brussels summit.

The crisis has surprised officials involved in the Brexit talks in Brussels. “People are just in disbelief that Ireland might decide to have an election in the middle of this,” said a senior Irish figure. “It would certainly be very helpful to our work over the next three weeks on Brexit if we didn’t have to fight an election at the same time.”

Theresa May, the UK prime minister, has rejected Mr Varadkar’s demands for written commitments before trade talks begin to avoid checks on the Irish border, even if it that means Northern Ireland continues to apply EU trade rules while Britain diverges.

This has prompted Mr Varadkar, who has the support of Brussels, to threaten to veto the start of trade talks at the summit in mid-December.

Liam Fox, Britain’s international trade secretary, insisted that there couldn’t be “a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state [of EU-UK relations]”. While Mr Fox’s comments reflect the reality that the border will be affected by EU-UK trade arrangements, they also underline the confidence of many Brexiters that Ireland will not exercise its veto in December.

Additional reporting in London by Henry Mance

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