A defiant Enda Kenny has killed off internal Fine Gael attempts to topple him after silencing rebels with a promise to “conclusively” address his leadership next month.
The race to succeed Mr Kenny as Taoiseach is now with Ministers Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, who are ready to launch their campaigns.
Mr Kenny last night silenced his critics with a defiant speech to a packed Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, insisting he won’t announce his departure until after St Patrick’s Day.
With the contest to succeed him likely to take three weeks, senior party figures said his replacement could be in place by Easter.
Fine Gael’s rebel TDs all but admitted his stern speech to members last night put an end to any threat to remove him as leader.
In what was seen as an orchestrated move, Mr Kenny has given himself an eight-week window before senior figures believe he will resign.
In an address to party members that lasted almost eight minutes, Mr Kenny made an implicit criticism of Mr Coveney, Mr Varadkar, and other rebels seen to have put pressure on him to go.
“When I hear of threats or caucuses and motions of no confidence after 42 years here, they are of no interest to me, none,” Mr Kenny told the meeting
“Let me make this clear: I will not undermine our people, I will not undermine the country.”
Mr Kenny’s address was greeted by warm applause.
Despite several party figures openly calling for Mr Kenny to go, not one member challenged him once he finished speaking.
At one stage, Mr Kenny said he hoped Noel Rock, the party secretary, would take notes “accurately”, a statement viewed by colleagues as a dig at the Dublin TD, who had called for him to clarify his position.
Frustrated members said the speech and its aftermath seemed well orchestrated and it was difficult for those present to speak afterwards when the agenda was moved on quickly.
Senior ministers had been spotted having breakfast in the Dáil canteen that morning — it is believed a strategy on handling last night’s meeting was agreed.
The speech shocked some of those present.
“You could see the blood drain from people’s faces,” said a party source.
Party vice-chairman Pat Deering had threatened a motion of no confidence. In the wake of the meeting, he said: “I am very happy we have had this discussion, it is over and we now move on.”
TD Alan Farrell, who last Friday said the Taoiseach’s position was untenable, spoke at the meeting but not about Mr Kenny’s position.
Last night, both Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar said they welcomed Mr Kenny’s clarification.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Mr Varadkar said: “The Taoiseach has 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.”
Mr Coveney said Mr Kenny had shown an authority that would hopefully deliver a process and a transition that would be well managed and keep the party together and Government together. “More or less what I was hoping would happen did happen,” he said.
Mr Coveney said he was very happy with Mr Kenny’s speech, adding that he managed to convince the room that the matter will be dealt with on his return from the US for St Patrick’s Day.
Mr Coveney said Mr Kenny did not offer any apology for his handling of the Maurice McCabe crisis. He said: “That was last week’s matter. He thankfully rose above that. He was clear and that is very welcome.”
Party chairman Martin Heydon had told members at the beginning of the meeting that they were not to take out their phones, for fears comments would be leaked.
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