Taoiseach to reveal intentions at crucial party meeting

Front-running contenders Coveney and Varadkar keen to see succession under way

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are anxious to set in place a timeline for Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s departure. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are anxious to set in place a timeline for Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s departure. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Enda Kenny will break his silence on his future as Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader at a crucial party meeting on Wednesday in the knowledge that the prospect of an immediate challenge to his leadership has receded.

In a short statement yesterday, the Taoiseach confirmed he will address the issue at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting.

He said he would make no other comment on the issue until then. Mr Kenny has only once referred to his own future since his admission that a conversation he said he held with Katherine Zappone over false sexual allegations made against Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe had not taken place.

It comes as one of the leading contenders to replace him said yesterday that the process should start “very quickly” after he returns from meeting US president Donald Trump in the White House on March 17th.

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney, in his most definitive comments on the timing of the succession, indicated that his preference is for Mr Kenny to step down in mid April or early May, even though he was careful not to specify any date.

Cooling-off period

Mr Coveney described a scenario where there would be a cooling-off period within the party until Mr Kenny returns from Washington, at which time the process to succeed him would begin. While laying down a deadline, it would involve a transition period of perhaps two or three months, far longer than envisaged by some of Mr Kenny’s internal critics in Fine Gael.

“I don’t think it’s going to be waiting for months and months,’ Mr Coveney pointed out.

“I think the process will move quite quickly after St Patrick’s Day and hope other people can support that view and allow that process take its course.

“He has led the party for 15 years and led the country for six years and is owed the respect and the space to be able to make good judgement calls around the leadership,” he told The Irish Times.

A spokesman for the other main contender to succeed the Taoiseach, Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar, said he agreed with the timeline set out by Mr Coveney. That was seen as a slight turnaround for Mr Varadkar who issued a statement on Saturday which appeared to put pressure on Mr Kenny to make an early statement.

“Everyone is waiting to hear form the Taoiseach. The situation is distracting and destabilising for the Government, the party and the country,” he said.

Mr Varadkar is known to have urged for a much quicker period of transition, and might have some difficulties supporting Mr Coveney’s suggested period, which could take eight weeks and might even take 12.

Minister for Health Simon Harris has not ruled himself out of contention and in an internal Fine Gael party messaging system yesterday his ministerial colleague Charlie Flanagan suggested he wanted “out of health”.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald have not declared their intentions as yet.

Inner circle

At this stage, nobody outside Mr Kenny’s inner circle of advisers is aware of what stance he will adopt when he addresses the meeting on Wednesday. Supporters of Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar said it could be possible for him – even though they thought the chances were slim – to argue against stepping down in the near future.

The Independent Alliance Minister of State, John Halligan, said he did not think it was a good idea to change Taoiseach. He told RTÉ that Mr Kenny should be allowed continue with Brexit negotiations for a number of months.

Meanwhile, Dublin Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes set out a 12-week departure timetable on Sunday for Mr Kenny. He said it would allow the Taoiseach, who has vast experience in EU affairs, to lead the Irish delegations in Brexit negotiations immediately after Britain triggers article 50.

Mr Coveney would not be drawn on whether he agreed with that timescale.

Mr Hayes said he did not believe a vote of no confidence in the Taoiseach would be good as it would split the party.

The prospects of such a motion being tabled has receded. Mr Coveney said he would not agree with such a motion under any circumstances.

“I strongly disagree with any suggestion of a motion of no confidence. It is the wrong approach and I wont’ be supporting it,” he said.