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Ireland is facing a political crisis as opposition parties call for the head of the deputy prime minister over an escalating policing scandal, with fears growing that the country could be on its way to an early election.

The claims surrounding Frances Fitzgerald have convulsed Leo Varadkar’s minority government as the prime minister intensifies a difficult diplomatic campaign in Brexit talks.

Fianna Fáil, the largest opposition party, made it clear on Thursday that it would not back Ms Fitzgerald, who faces a motion of no confidence from Sinn Féin over her stewardship of the justice ministry during the administration of Enda Kenny, Mr Varadkar’s predecessor as taoiseach.

There is growing concern within Mr Varadkar’s administration that the row could lead to an early election. The prime minister faces a choice between allowing Ms Fitzgerald to be removed or leave, or continuing to support her and risking the collapse of deal with Fianna Fáil that underpins his minority government.

“This has certainly shortened the lifetime of this government. If Fianna Fáil want to support the motion, the appetite at the moment is to defend our [deputy prime minister] as we don’t see what she has done wrong,” said one government figure. “If they’re going to go for it tomorrow, nothing suggests we’re going to back down.”

Jim O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil Justice spokesman, said his party did not want a general election, but if that was the consequence of the party’s move not to back Ms Fitzgerald, “so be it”.

Fianna Fáil was keen to resolve the matter, he said, and Micheál Martin, the party’s leader, would continue talks with Mr Varadkar.

Critics of Ms Fitzgerald say she knew about, and did nothing to avert, attempts by a former chief of police to discredit a police whistleblower.

The affair has embarrassed Mr Varadkar, who took a high-profile political stand three years ago to praise the whistleblower’s “distinguished” service. As pressure builds before an important Brexit summit next month, the domestic political row has added to diplomatic challenges he faces over the Irish border.

Mr Varadkar has made clear his displeasure at receiving erroneous information from the justice department at least twice in the past week. “It has been hugely damaging for the government,” said another government figure.

Ms Fitzgerald argues that she played no part in the police chief’s strategy and had no power to intervene, since the matter was being heard before a judge-led inquiry.

Simon Harris, the health minister, dismissed the Sinn Féin motion as a stunt, saying there was no evidence that Fianna Fáil would not honour its agreements with the government.

“If they [Fianna Fáil] were to take her scalp it would wound Varadkar without taking down the government,” said Eoin O’Malley, associate professor of politics at Dublin City University.

The policing affair centres on inquiries into a series of complaints made by Sgt Maurice McCabe, who exposed the practice of senior police quashing driver penalty points for reasons of nepotism or favouritism. The allegations date back to 2006.

Compounded by separate revelations that police exaggerated the number of alcohol breath tests carried out on motorists by almost 2m, the allegations have damaged the standing of the Garda Siochana.

It emerged this week that Ms Fitzgerald received an email in May 2015 informing her that the police chief’s legal team was questioning Sgt McCabe’s motives at the inquiry, despite saying previously that she did not learn of the strategy until a year later.

The legal strategy included reference to an already discredited serious criminal complaint against the whistleblower. 

Ms Fitzgerald’s insistence that she forgot about the email has been dismissed by the opposition.

“The email sent in 2015 clearly showed a deliberate plan to smear Maurice McCabe in the worst possible way,” said Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin deputy leader. “Why did she sit idly by and allow them to plot to destroy Sgt McCabe?”

The affair has already led to the departure of two successive chiefs of police, most recently in September, and the departure of a previous justice minister in 2014.

“There’s a question about whether it’s a cock-up or a conspiracy. These things usually tend to be cock-ups,” Mr O’Malley said.

“But Frances Fitzgerald was sent in there to sort out the problem. She knew what she was meant to do, which was offer some of clarity and in most of her pronouncements and dealings with the issue she has just added to the confusion.”

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