Long wait to replace Kenny will raise Fine Gael tensions

Despite hopes tonight’s statement by Enda Kenny to Fine Gael colleagues will clarify when the race to replace him officially begins, the reality is his remarks may mark only the start of the complications.

If, as expected, Mr Kenny pointedly avoids giving a specific date and instead merely confirms he will start a transition ‘process’ on his return from the White House next month, hopes of a speedy handover will fall by the wayside.

Instead, unless a controversial motion of no confidence is put back on the table, the official commencement of the leadership race could be delayed for at least a month, with the growing possibility that Mr Kenny’s diary commitments may even drag out the firing of any starting gun until April.

This situation will mean no new leader will be in place until May, causing fresh problems for the factions within Fine Gael.

After tonight’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, Mr Kenny is likely to be given until after his White House visit next month to begin his formal removal from power, partially because a motion of no confidence in him is not guaranteed to succeed.

Such a time-frame means he will be in place when British Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on March 10, and will also allow him to travel to visit US president Donald Trump.

While this latter meeting will occur on St Patrick’s Day, the visit is expected to include an eight-to-10-day trade mission to US cities, meaning Mr Kenny will, realistically, not return to Ireland to begin the leadership race until the final week of March.

That is, if he returns immediately at all. Mr Kenny has previously travelled straight to EU events after White House meetings, so the commencement of a leadership race could be delayed.

EU leaders are due to hold a three-day informal meeting in Rome on the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome on March 25-27, which Mr Kenny may attend.

Similarly, straight after the Rome meeting, the European People’s Party (EPP) — the umbrella group of which Fine Gael is a member — will hold a two-day congress in Malta on March 28-30, a meeting Mr Kenny is likely to also wish to attend.

Should Mr Kenny choose to attend the EPP meeting, which ends on the final Thursday of March, the next possibility of beginning a leadership race will be the following Tuesday, when he announces his departure in the Dáil.

However, given there will be a special EU leaders Brexit strategy meeting in Brussels that week, it is possible the Taoiseach will defer any move until after this meeting.

The Easter break is on the horizon the following week and, with the personally-coveted April 20 date marking the moment Mr Kenny replaces John A Costello as Fine Gael’s longest-serving leader within touching distance, it is likely the taoiseach will remain in situ until this point.

As Fine Gael leadership-change rules state the party has 20 days to hold a leadership contest once the race is officially announced, this means that, despite tonight’s statement, leadership candidates may be waiting until May to know their fate.

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