Fine Gael leadership succession race under way
Kenny pledge to ‘conclusively’ deal with issue on return from US a signal to contenders
Enda Kenny: “I will always put country first and never undermine the people.” Photograph: The Irish Times
The contest to succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael is effectively under way after Mr Kenny told his parliamentary party on Wednesday night he would deal “conclusively” with the leadership issue when he returns from the United States after St Patrick’s Day.
Mr Kenny’s remarks were accepted by Fine Gael TDs, some of whom had threatened a motion of no confidence in him, as a commitment to step aside in March, with a successor likely to be in place by the end of April at the latest.
Fine Gael TDs, Senators and MEPs met at Leinster House in anticipation of an announcement about his future by Mr Kenny. He gave a short speech lasting about eight minutes, reading from handwritten notes, and receiving a warm round of applause at the end.
Afterwards, TDs and Senators, even some who have opposed him in recent weeks, were effusive in their praise. However, several of them also said that if he did not proceed as they expected, he would face a motion of no confidence within a short time.
While Mr Kenny did not specifically lay out a timeframe for his departure, those present accepted his comments as a clear sign the process to replace him as party leader will begin in late March. That would mean a new Fine Gael leader would be in place by mid-April.
Subject to renewing vows with the Independent Alliance and Fianna Fail, the successful candidate is likely to be elected Taoiseach by the Dáil in late April.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Kenny said that the issue was never about a person or persons, and not even about a party. “It is about the people and I will always put country first and never undermine the people.”
Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar, whose intervention last week, along with his colleague and leadership rival Simon Coveney, made the pressure on the Taoiseach irresistible, said Mr Kenny had “settled the matter”.
“The leadership will be dealt with effectively and conclusively after the St Patrick’s Day visits. I think everyone is relieved that we have avoided damaging divisions,” said Mr Varadkar.
Allies of Mr Varadkar later said the matter had been resolved successfully because Mr Kenny had convinced the party he would be departing. Had he not, they said, the meeting would have had a different outcome.
Mr Coveney said Mr Kenny had shown an authority that would hopefully deliver a process and a transition that would be well managed and would keep the party together and the Government together.
“More or less what I was hoping would happen did happen,” he said.
Mr Coveney rejected any suggestion there was co-ordination or discussions between him and Mr Kenny in advance of the Taoiseach’s speech. He said they had talked a few times but not in that way.
Attention will now turn to the contest to replace Mr Kenny as party leader and presumed taoiseach.
Colleagues say the only real contest is between Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar.