Taoiseach Enda Kenny will not oversee another budget and will have to be gone by next summer, senior Fine Gael ministers have said.
Not one of the six ministers spoken to by the Irish Examiner in the past few days said they believe Mr Kenny would be still in office come 2018, as he has recently indicated.
“No way he stays until 2018. He has done his last budget and the summer time seems likely when he steps down,” one minister said.
It is now widely expected that Finance Minister Michael Noonan will depart at the same time as Mr Kenny, amid growing concerns as to the veteran politician’s health.
Several Fine Gael ministers believe the chances of a general election in 2017 are high and growing, because of the unstable nature of the minority Government with the Independents.
Given Mr Kenny’s statement that he does not intend leading his party into the next election, the ministers have said he will last until the summer, at which point a race to succeed him will commence in earnest.
A number of ministers pointed to comments made by Kerry TD Brendan Griffin during the summer, when he said the party must prepare for an early election, effectively calling on Mr Kenny to announce his intended timeline for departure.
While Mr Griffin’s timing was described as inopportune, “his analysis was spot on”.
“The middle ground has shifted and there is a growing disenchantment with the so-called new politics,” said one minister.
“I think at this stage he will have to be gone by the summer, and many moderates within the party feel the same,” the minister said.
Other Cabinet ministers pointed to the presence of Mr Kenny’s wife Fionnuala on his Vatican visit last week to meet Pope Francis as significant, saying it had the feel of a farewell tour about it.
With Mr Kenny’s leadership under constant scrutiny, some ministers believe it is having a destabilising impact, while others insist a contest to succeed him must occur for the good of the party.
While Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar is seen as the front-runner at present, several leading party figures are concerned as to his “maverick” tendencies which they believe scupper his chances.
The “aloof” Housing Minister Simon Coveney is not popular among many in the parliamentary party and his difficult portfolio — which includes water charges, housing and homelessness — are a real threat to his candidacy, ministers believe.
Just two weeks ago, Mr Kenny said that he hopes to welcome Pope Francis to Ireland as Taoiseach. The Pope will visit Ireland in 2018.
Asked by journalists if he would welcome the pontiff here as head of Government, Mr Kenny said that he hoped so.
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