IRELAND’S deputy prime minister Frances Fitzgerald has said she resigned over her handling of a whistleblower scandal to avoid an “unwelcome and potentially destabilising” snap election.

In a move that saved the minority government, the former Tanaiste said she had acted with integrity and responsibility throughout her political career.

Fitzgerald said she was putting the national interest ahead of her personal reputation. “It has been the greatest honour of my life to serve in government, but I believe it is necessary to take this decision to avoid an unwelcome and potentially destabilising general election at this historically critical time,” she said in a statement.

“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 resignation was revealed at a Cabinet meeting and came hours before a planned motion of no confidence in her.

The scandal revolves around Fitzgerald’s knowledge of an aggressive legal strategy against a respected Garda officer during a private inquiry in 2015. And it threatened the fragile agreement which sees opposition party Fianna Fail prop up Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s minority government.

Not only that, but the fallout is casting a long shadow over December’s key Brexit summit, where the future of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland could be determined.

In her resignation statement, Fitzgerald thanked the Taoiseach, who had stood by her and previously insisted he did not want her to stand down. She said he had shown the same courage and determination to protect her good name as he showed in 2014 when he defended whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe and described him as distinguished.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Fitzgerald acknowledged that continuing in a ministerial role risked destabilising the fragile minority government.

Up until her resignation, the Republic was facing the prospect of a snap general election in the run-up to Christmas and also in the teeth of the crucial Brexit summit in Brussels next month when the future of the Irish border could be determined.

Demands for Fitzgerald to stand down heightened after a tranche of emails dating back to 2015 were released on Monday night by the Department of Justice.

They showed she was aware of a controversial legal strategy to target Sgt McCabe at a private judge-led inquiry into his claims of wrongdoing in the force. Fitzgerald, who was justice minister in 2015, said last week that she only learned in 2016 of the approach being taken by lawyers for the Garda commissioner. The series of emails contradicts this claim.

In a statement to the Dail parliament, Varadkar paid tribute to Fitzgerald. “It’s my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing,” he said.

He described Fitzgerald as an exemplary member of government and colleague and one of the most reforming justice ministers in the history of the state. He said he believed she would be vindicated by the Disclosures Tribunal.

Varadkar said Fitzgerald was resigning rather than letting the country face an election and crucial Brexit negotiations without a functioning government.