The two most likely successors to Taoiseach Enda Kenny are split on how to remove him from power.
Leo Varadkar is seeking a clear two-month departure timeframe by this Wednesday, while Simon Coveney is calling for an orderly plan after next month’s White House visit.
As the battlelines are drawn in the fight for internal party support, Housing Minister Mr Coveney said Mr Kenny should be allowed to meet US president Donald Trump in Washington DC on March 17 before any process to replace him begins.
In a similar move to Social Protection Minister Mr Varadkar, who on Saturday called for Mr Kenny to settle the leadership question now, Mr Coveney said the issue needs to be clarified.
However, contradicting his chief rival to replace Mr Kenny, he said any decision can wait until after the White House visit and crucially that he will not support a “crazy” no confidence motion even if the Taoiseach rejects his plan.
Speaking on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics after Mr Varadkar’s Saturday night statement and just hours before Mr Kenny’s spokesperson said the Taoiseach will address colleagues on Wednesday, Mr Coveney said an orderly plan to handover power needs to begin next month.
“My opinion is the Taoiseach should go to Washington, but I think after that visit you will see an orderly but quite quick transition after that,” said Mr Coveney.
Speaking later to the Irish Examiner, Mr Coveney repeatedly referred to the need to trust Mr Kenny to know when is the right time to step down, and said that, after 15 years leading his party, he deserves to leave in a “dignified” manner.
Saying he will not support a motion of no confidence this week or later regardless of whether the Taoiseach outlines his departure plans on Wednesday, Mr Coveney said there is a need for a “common decency”.
However, he rejected claims that his positioning means he is backing away from a leadership race, saying waiting a few weeks will not delay the inevitable.
“I’m reasonably comfortable with that,” he said. “We shouldn’t roll from one crisis one week to another and I do not think we should be clamouring for him to go right away. A contest is on the way, and I’m very confident that what Enda Kenny has in his own mind is a date shortly after St Patrick’s Day.
The tone was in stark contrast to Mr Varadkar who, despite publicly stressing the need to give Mr Kenny space late last week, increased the pressure on the Taoiseach in a statement on Saturday night which called for him to “settle” the leadership issue now.
“Everyone is waiting to hear from the Taoiseach. I have full confidence in the Taoiseach to settle it”, said Mr Varadkar, mirroring comments from known supporters Fine Gael vice-chairman Pat Deering, Noel Rock, and Alan Farrell.
It is understood Mr Varadkar wants Mr Kenny to outline a two-month departure plan at the weekly parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday. However, unlike Mr Coveney’s position, Mr Varadkar’s supporters will be given the go-ahead to reignite a shelved no confidence motion in Mr Kenny should he fail to adequately address the issue this week.
Mr Varadkar’s approach was criticised by former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes, who told Newstalk “some of them [politicians], including Leo, have played the game rather badly” and may have misinterpreted how party members want to handle Mr Kenny’s departure.
Education Minister Richard Bruton will be asked to clarify if he intends running at a meeting of his local branch tonight.
Health Minister Simon Harris last night said he is focused on the health brief and not “idle speculation” after Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan sent a What’s App message to Fine Gael TD Pat Breen saying:
“He hasn’t announced yet but Frances is encouraging him. He wants out of health.”
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