Social Protection Minister Joan Burton was immediately installed as the favourite to take the helm following a humiliating result for the junior coalition party in the local and European elections.
Alex White, the junior health minister, is expected to be her biggest competition, with the support of a handful of the party’s younger generation of TDs rallying behind him.
Apart from the two Dublin-based candidates, Cork East TD and junior minister Sean Sherlock said he would be giving “serious consideration” to a bid, while Kerry TD Arthur Spring refused to rule himself out of the race.
It follows the announcement by Mr Gilmore that he would be resigning as of July 4, after his party was left without any MEPs and with just 50 out of 949 seats at local councils.
After a meeting with his party’s senior and junior ministers, an emotional Mr Gilmore told a press conference that he had “agonised” over the decision throughout the weekend.
He said he had taken his party into coalition with Fine Gael in 2011 because there was a duty to act during the worst economic crisis in the history of the State.
“I still believe that was the right decision, and I am proud of the progress we have made in achieving those objectives,” said Mr Gilmore.
“But it was a course which carried a high political risk, and Labour has paid the price for that in the local and European elections. I deeply regret the loss of good public representatives and the defeat of outstanding Labour candidates last Friday.”
He said he will stay on as leader until his successor is appointed before the end of the current Dáil term.
The first task for any new leader will be to repair deep divisions in the parliamentary party over the tabling of a no-confidence motion by seven TDs and one senator yesterday.
Chief whip Emmet Stagg said the younger TDs had acted “prematurely” because they “haven’t much experience in this kind of thing”.
This was rejected by the young TDs, who said that they had consulted with “the junior ministerial ranks” before signing the no-confidence motions.
Waterford TD Ciara Conway said Mr Stagg’s comments were “pure spin” against those who signed the motion.
“I am as entitled to my opinion as everybody else regardless of my age and my gender,” she said. “It is not something that I did lightly.”
Galway West TD Derek Nolan said the group would not have brought the motion if they had known Mr Gilmore intended to go, a decision the Labour leader said he made late on Sunday.
The new leader will face an even bigger challenge in rebuilding the party’s support, which fell to 7% in Friday’s local elections — meaning it could lose all but two seats if a general election was called.
As the Taoiseach awaits his new leadership partner — a relationship that will dictate if the Coalition is held together — Enda Kenny said he understands that the Labour Party is “completely committed to the stability of Government”.
Mr Kenny said there would be a “review of the state of the national account and the national finances”, and the Government would “look at what is the best thing to do so that we can be as fair and as forgiving to give to people with whatever flexibility that we have”.
Meanwhile, Meath East TD Dominic Hannigan said the planned motion against Mr Gilmore would have brought the Tánaiste down and that it was ultimately “instrumental” in his resignation.
“We set this up before we knew anything about him going, after talking to significant senior people in the party,” he said.
“It’s a sad moment for Labour. But I do think it [the motion] was instrumental in his decision to step down.
“We are not a cabal of TDs of any one candidate. We want to see a contest, not a coronation.
“But we are confident we would have won a vote on Wednesday and senior ministers would have supported us.”
Nominations for Labour’s next leader close on June 3 and, if there is a contest, the results of a postal ballot of 5,000 party members will be announced on July 4. The possible contenders include:
Ms Burton would be the oldest contender and the most easily recognised by the public.
Labour’s only personality politician, she is more popular nationally and among party grassroots than she is in the parliamentary party.
Ms Burton was disappointed to be demoted to the social protection role when Labour went into government but has used the portfolio to push through an agenda of reforming welfare while attempting to appeal to middle-class voters at the same time.
The former RTÉ journalist was elected to the Dáil in 2011 and became junior health minister the following year.
Seen as a safe pair of hands, some in the party consider him to be too slick for his own good.
Former Munster MEP is seen to have handled his junior transport ministry well but lacks a national profile.
Mr Howlin has become the go-to minister for Labour TDs who want something done. With public sector workers making up a significant block of Labour voters at the last election, Mr Howlin’s record of presiding over job losses and wage changes hitting that workforce may weigh against him.
The junior science minister is seen as a solid media performer and part of the “generation next” cohort, but calls for Labour to embrace and acknowledge Sinn Féin as a likely party in the next government raised eyebrows.
The long shot refused to rule himself out last night.
He has been one of the most vocal opponents of the party’s direction after the rout, but lacks ministerial experience.
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