Enda Kenny refuses to rule out third term in office
Taoiseach fuels leadership speculation but insists election will be in three years
ENDA Kenny has fuelled speculation that he will seek a third term as Taoiseach by refusing to rule out suggestions he intends to lead Fine Gael into the next general election.
Mr Kenny was given three opportunities during a press conference on Wednesday to refute claims by senior Cabinet colleagues that he would remain party leader if a snap general election was called next year.
On all three occasions, the Taoiseach deliberately avoided answering the question and instead said his focus was on the challenges posed by Britain's decision to leave the European Union.
When it was put to him that he was purposely leaving open the possibility of a seeking a third term in office, Mr Kenny said this was "an interrogative question" and added that he was "genuinely focused on the challenge up ahead".
"I'm not even contemplating an election, there won't be one for three years," the Taoiseach said.
The Sunday Independent last weekend revealed Fine Gael ministers in Mr Kenny's Cabinet believe he would try to hold on to power if a general election was called before a leadership contest could take place.
The development is a blow to the leadership ambitions of Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney who are both actively campaigning to succeed Mr Kenny.
Senior Fine Gael figures believe Mr Kenny would receive the backing of a large section of the parliamentary party if an election was called in the middle of Brexit negotiations.
The Taoiseach is widely seen as the best placed member of Cabinet to deal with talks on Britain leaving the union due to his close relationships with the leaders of other EU member states.
Asked if he would like to remain leader for the duration of the Brexit negotiations, Mr Kenny said the talks could be "10 years, could be eight years, could be six years".
Within the Taoiseach's camp, his advisers also believe Mr Kenny's tenure in office was extended by Britain's decision to leave the EU.
Officials are of the opinion Mr Kenny has a responsibility to utilise his contacts in the EU during the Brexit which are talks due to begin in March next year.
"The big game changer was Brexit because the Taoiseach has the relationships and experience and it just made it more credible for him to remain in office," a senior Government source said.
The source also noted that Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney have never attended any crucial EU summits or held a high enough office in Government to handle the Brexit talks.
The same official said the only Fine Gael TD who has the experience to represent Ireland during the negotiations is Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Paschal Donohoe.
"The only possible future leader who has held office of that level is Paschal," the source said.
Mr Donohoe has regularly been touted as a leadership candidate within Fine Gael but the minister has insisted he has no interest in challenging for the leadership.
Speaking to Independent.ie's 'Floating Voter' podcast, Mr Donohoe said he ruled himself out of the leadership race because he was wanted to focus on his role in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. "Responsibility is part of the reason why I am ruling myself out. The job I have at the moment is so big and has so many consequences. I want to leave this office and the job I do in the best condition that I possibly can," Mr Donohoe said.
"The Taoiseach will decide at a time of his choosing when he no longer wants to be leader of Fine Gael and at that point when he relinquishes that role he will relinquish the office of the Taoiseach as well."