Fine Gael set to have new leader by Easter

Fine Gael ministers believe they will have a new leader by Easter after Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he will “conclusively” address his future after he returns from his White House visit for St Patrick’s Day.

The prediction was made by a number of well-placed figures after Mr Kenny ensured any leadership contest was put on hold for at least a month by outmaneuvering his fiercest critics.

In an eight-minute address to Fine Gael’s weekly parliamentary party meeting, Mr Kenny told a crowded room he will “conclusively” address his future after he returns from the US.

Speaking from prepared notes in a discussion which failed to see any response whatsoever from the floor, despite a week of calls for him to step down, Mr Kenny said he has a number of European engagements to attend to over the coming weeks.

He said the the issue of when he will depart office will be “conclusively” addressed next month when he returns from the US — giving the clearest indication yet of his intentions to depart.

The move led to the majority of Fine Gael members present applauding his remarks and privately stating that he caught the mood of members who do not want an internal battle. It also, notably, did not include a specific timeline for his departure.

It was widely interpreted by senior TDs and ministers last night to mean Mr Kenny intends on announcing plans to step aside in late March and for a new leader of Fine Gael to be in place over Easter.

A number of party members said last night that they believe Mr Kenny will announce his plan to leave office in the final week of March, leaving a 20-day leadership race to conclude over the Easter period.

One senior member who was present at the meeting noted that Mr Kenny is acutely aware that the controversy over when he will step down has brought the likelihood of a general election far closer than originally thought, and that, as such, he is now obliged to step aside.

The position was publicly welcomed by Housing Minister Simon Coveney and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar, the two most likely contenders to replace the Fine Gael leader. They both said they are happy with Mr Kenny’s views.

Outspoken critics of Mr Kenny who have called for motions of no confidence and for him to step down in recent days — including back-bench TD Noel Rock and party vice-chairman Pat Deering — were equally on message last night.

Despite insisting they are supportive of Mr Kenny’s views, a number of parliamentary party members said the Taoiseach’s detractors have effectively been forced to back down and allow him to leave on his own terms.

In a statement, party chairman Martin Heydon, said Fine Gael is now “united” and that Mr Kenny will outline “his future intentions” next month.

The meeting had been the subject of paranoia over information leaking out — TD Josepha Madigan said she wanted parliamentary party members’ phones to be confiscated during the meeting to ensure discussions remained private.

At the start of the meeting, Mr Heydon asked members to keep their phones in their pockets in order to prevent any suggestions they are the source of media leaks.

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