Taoiseach Enda Kenny has announced he is stepping down as leader of Fine Gael from midnight.
Mr Kenny, who has been leader of Fine Gael since 2002 and Taoiseach since 2011, made the long-awaited announcement at the weekly meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators on Wednesday evening, triggering the contest to succeed him.
Mr Kenny will remain as Taoiseach until his successor is elected. The new leader will be announced on Friday, June 2nd.
Minister for Housing Simon Coveney and Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar are seen as the two front-runners.
The party’s national executive will meet on Thursday to finalise the mechanics of the contest.
Mr Kenny (66) said he will allow the new leader some time to conduct discussions with Fianna Fáil and the Independents before he will stand aside as Taoiseach.
The Fine Gael parliamentary party was scheduled to meet in Leinster House at 5.30pm but Mr Kenny had called for it to be brought forward by an hour.
The entire meeting lasted just seven minutes.
Mr Kenny made a short speech in which he mentioned his “uninterrupted service” in the Dáil since 1975 and thanked his supporters in his Mayo constituency and his family.
Mr Kenny was described by those present as “very emotional” and was given a number of standing ovations by his TDs and senators.
Martin Heydon, the chairman of the parliamentary party, gave a short speech paying tribute and thanking Mr Kenny.
Although some TDs, such as Dublin South Central’s Catherine Byrne, indicated they would like to speak, Mr Kenny asked if it was “okay for him to go now”.
“It was like he couldn’t take it,” said one of those present.
Mr Kenny is due to travel to the US and Belgium between June 4th and June 7th.
In his statement, Mr Kenny said he will “retire as leader from midnight tonight 17th May 2017”.
“I will continue to carry out my duties as party leader in an acting capacity, until my successor is elected through the Fine Gael leadership election process,” said Mr Kenny, who received a standing ovation at the meeting.
“I have asked that the Fine Gael Executive Council expedite this process and to have it concluded by close of business on Friday June 2nd.
“I want to assure people that throughout this internal process, I will continue to carry out my duties and responsibilities as Taoiseach in full.
“I intend to provide a brief but appropriate period for my successor to engage with groups and members supportive of Government, and with other Parties in the Dáil regarding provision of Government for the future.
“I would like to stress the huge honour and privilege that it has been for me to lead our party for the past 15 years, in opposition and into Government on two successive occasions.
“I thank all our members, past and present for that privilege. I thank all my loyal constituents and supporters in Mayo for their unstinting loyalty since 1975, and for their support for my family previously in providing unbroken service to the County in Dáil Éireann since 1954.
“I thank my personal staff for their commitment over many years to their duties. I especially want to thank my wife Fionnuala, our children, my siblings and their families for their understanding of my work, and indeed for accepting the many intrusions of politics into family life in the interest of building our Country. I could not have engaged as I did without that base.”
Mr Heydon praised Mr Kenny for his tenure as Fine Gael leader.
In a statement, he listed the achievements of the Fine Gael leader including the marriage equality referendum, an apology for survivors of the Magdalene laundries, the children’s rights referendum, and legislating for the X Case.
“He fostered and encouraged a generational change in our Party, which while being the largest party in Dáil Éireann, now also has one of the youngest age profiles.
“Thanks to Enda Kenny, Fine Gael has an abundance of talented representatives, who have an ever increasing experience of governing.
“On behalf of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party, I would like to thank Enda Kenny for his remarkable service to our country and our Party. I would also like to acknowledge the sacrifices made by his wife Fionnuala, and their children Aoibhinn, Ferdia and Naoise, which allowed Enda to be the great leader that he has been.”
Mr Kenny is understood to have held a meeting of his staff ahead of a press launch on Wednesday afternoon to inform them of his plans.
Fair play contract
Candidates are to be compelled to sign up to a “fair play contract” that will attempt to keep the contest to succeed Mr Kenny as party leader clean. A document will be drawn up by the party hierarchy over the coming days.
Party sources told The Irish Times the so-called “fair play contract” will prohibit candidates from using methods the party deems unacceptable, such as distributing opinion polls with disputed methodologies.
The move follows on from the distribution of polls by supporters of Mr Coveney which sought to assess the levels of support for Fine Gael if the party was led by Mr Coveney or Mr Varadkar.
Although Mr Coveney’s supporters stood over the data, those in Mr Varadkar’s camp have disputed the findings.