Housing Minister Simon Coveney has admitted a Fine Gael leadership race is likely "in the not too distant future", despite insisting the issue should not distract Government from existing work, writes Irish Examiner political reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.
The senior cabinet member confirmed the replacement of Taoiseach Enda Kenny as party leader is high on Fine Gael's agenda after a fractious parliamentary party meeting saw TDs lash out at the Mayo TD.
During a tense private discussion on Wednesday night, a series of Fine Gael TDs heavily criticised Mr Kenny for his handling of affairs in recent weeks.
On the eve of a new poll showing Fine Gael has slumped to 24% support compared to Fianna Fáil 33%, Louth TD Fergus O Dowd called for "new leadership", while Kerry's Brendan Griffin, Carlow-Kilkenny's Pat Deering and Louth's Peter Fitzpatrick were equally damning of events.
The issue followed a week in which Mr Kenny has presided over a failed attempt to launch a cross-border Brexit economic response plan, been forced to back down on an abortion bill row with Independent Alliance cabinet members and the resignation of Joe O Toole as chair of the water commission.
And despite insisting his party needs to continue to focus on the existing work faced by Government, speaking at a housing meeting in the Mansion House in Dublin today, Mr Coveney admitted the developments mean a Fine Gael leadership race is now imminent.
"There will be a time in the not too distant future I expect when leadership is going to have to be discussed in Fine Gael, but I don't see why we will have to have a long drawn out process that actually distracts government away from the core issues it needs to focus on for Irish people.
"From that perspective, I think the Taoiseach is a very experienced politician, he will have thought through what he needs to do in the interests of Fine Gael over the next few years and more importantly in the interests of running a good government.
"And I think he should be given the space to do that," Mr Coveney told reporters.
Asked if the parliamentary party row represented the first "shots being fired" in the leadership race, Mr Coveney - who is regularly touted as a potential successor to Mr Kenny - insisted this was not the case.
Claiming the remarks from his colleagues were simply "pragmatic" and that all party's occasionally have "blunt, honest conversations", the Housing Minister argued "there was no rancour" at Wednesday's meeting.
However, while stepping back from calling for a leadership race now as there is still "a huge job to do" for various departments that should be the priority, Mr Coveney declined to say he is not interested in replacing Mr Kenny if and when the opportunity arises.
"No, look I'm not getting into leadership discussions now, I have a huge job to do around housing, a very difficult issue around managing water, local government reform, waste management.
"A lot of the very difficult prickly issues are my responsibility. But my first focus beyond anything else is on housing and homelessness," he said.