Housing Minister Simon Coveney has opened an early lead on his main rival Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar in the race to succeed Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, writes Daniel McConnell and Sorcha Ni Coileáin.
According to an analysis of the 73-member Fine Gael parliamentary party, the Irish Examiner believes Mr Coveney currently commands the support of 37 members, seven clear of the 30 votes for Mr Varadkar.
Six votes are either undecided or too close to call at this stage.
News that Mr Coveney has overtaken Mr Varadkar — the long-standing perceived frontrunner to succeed Mr Kenny — comes as the Taoiseach indicated in Brussels that he intends remaining in office longer than many of his detractors would want.
In terms of the numbers, what is certain is that Mr Coveney’s vote is a good deal stronger than many, including those within Fine Gael, would have given him credit for even four weeks ago.
Crucially, we see Mr Coveney picking up votes from TDs, Senators and MEPs from all over the country, even in Dublin, where we figure he could pick up at least seven votes.
Those seven are Maria Bailey of Dun Laoghaire, former TD and now senator James Reilly (deputy leader), former Ceann Comhairle and Dun Laoghaire TD Sean Barrett, junior health minister Catherine Byrne, Josepha Madigan of Dublin Rathdown, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Dublin Bay South’s Kate O’Connell.
Our analysis shows Mr Coveney picking up a lot of support in Munster, given his Cork base.
Crucially, we anticipate Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed backing up his fellow county man.
Minister Pat Breen and Joe Carey from Clare are also likely to support Mr Coveney over Mr Varadkar.
According to our analysis, Cork junior ministers Dara Murphy and David Stanton are also behind Mr Coveney.
Among the other names we believe are ready to support Mr Coveney’s candidacy are Munster senators Jerry Buttimer, Tim Lombard (a close school friend of Coveney’s), Kerry’s Paul Coghlan and ex-TD Kieran O’Donnell backing the Corkonian along with MEPs Deirdre Clune, Sean Kelly and Mairead McGuinness.
For his part, Mr Varadkar is hoping a strong base from Dublin and the East coast will give him what he needs to overtake Mr Coveney in the race.
Along with Minister Eoghan Murphy, who is Mr Varadkar’s campaign manager, we see the following Dubliners supporting Mr Varadkar: Colm Brophy, Alan Farrell, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Noel Rock, Dublin senators Catherine Noone and Neale Richmond, along with MEP Brian Hayes.
We also see the likes of Ministers Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, chief whip Regina Doherty, Joe McHugh, Patrick O’Donovan, Helen McEntee, Sean Kyne, party vice chairman Pat Deering, Jim Daly, John Deasy (maybe), Brendan Griffin, party chairman Martin Heydon, Fergus O’Dowd, Michael D’Arcy, Peter Burke and John Paul Phelan all going Mr Varadkar’s way.
Just 24 hours after silencing his critics at a meeting of the parliamentary party, Mr Kenny said he wants to remain in power in order to attend two key Brexit summits of European leaders.
“Our focus is on the discussions up ahead, and that’s our only focus. Clearly the important meetings for settling the negotiations are ones that I do hope to be in attendance at, and play our part in setting out again our priorities here,” he told reporters.
Speaking yesterday in Brussels, Mr Kenny said he also wants to take language from the Good Friday Agreement and put it directly into the Brexit deal so that “Northern Ireland would have ease of access to join as a member of the European Union again”.
EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, who Mr Kenny met said Europe does “not want to have hard borders” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and said the Good Friday Agreement should not be put at risk.
Speaking about Mr Kenny’s pending departure, Mr Juncker said he will be “very, very sad” to see the Taoiseach go.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.