'It's amateur hour' as FG leadership crisis sparks series of gaffes - and Varadkar is forced to close WhatsApp group
Shock as Coveney hands Kenny two-month deadline to quit
A series of blunders by ministers has plunged Fine Gael into meltdown mode as senior party figures fear the leadership crisis will prompt an early general election.
There was widespread shock in the party yesterday after Housing Minister Simon Coveney issued a two-month deadline for Enda Kenny to step aside as Taoiseach.
In a bizarre turn of events, it was suggested in an internal Fine Gael 'WhatsApp' group that Simon Harris wants to leave the Department of Health.
And Leo Varadkar, a leading contender in the Fine Gael leadership race, was forced to close the party's WhatsApp group following leaks to the media.
It comes as a group of rebels prepare to oust Mr Kenny as leader unless he clearly spells out his exit strategy on Wednesday night.
A number of ministers last night said calm needed to be restored to the party ranks as the leadership battle between Leo Varadkar and Mr Coveney continues.
Mr Coveney, a frontrunner to succeed Mr Kenny, initially warned TDs of issuing "threats" or "ultimatums" to their under-pressure party leader.
He took a swipe at his main rival, Mr Varadkar, who he said wanted to "push things" in relation to the leadership.
But just moments later, the Cork South-Central TD issued the clearest ultimatum to date - telling Mr Kenny to step aside after his visit to the White House for St Patrick's Day.
"My view is that the Taoiseach should go to Washington for St Patrick's Day. But I expect the leadership within Fine Gael, and ultimately the leadership in the country, and the issues around that will be dealt with very quickly after that," Mr Coveney told RTÉ's 'The Week in Politics'.
Last night, a close supporter of Mr Coveney's said he had not intended to go as far as issuing such an ultimatum.
Sources in the Varadkar camp immediately seized on the apparent blunder. "Quite clearly this was Simon trying to claw back ground on Leo," said one well-placed source.
Mr Varadkar, however, has left a number of so-called middle ground TDs furious following his statement released on Saturday night that put serious pressure on Mr Kenny.
One Cabinet minister said the move "outraged" Fine Gael members, adding "it's not the way to do business".
But there were further tensions within the party yesterday after Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan claimed the Health Minister wanted a different portfolio.
He also suggested that Mr Harris and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald were colluding over the leadership issue.
"He hasn't announced yet but Frances is encouraging him. He wants out of Health," Mr Flanagan posted in the group, which is made up of dozens of TDs and senators.
He later responded with the message: "Clarity for leakers and fake newshounds. Earlier tongue in cheek re Simon & Frances just that!"
Mr Flanagan told the Irish Independent last night that the comments were a "gag", while Mr Harris rejected outright claims that he wants to leave his ministerial post.
Hours later, the Wicklow/East Carlow TD quit the WhatsApp group. Shortly after this, Mr Varadkar - who administrates the group - said he was "shutting it down".
The Dublin West TD, who set up the group during the government formation talks, announced the decision to ministers, TDs and Senators on Sunday night.
Ministers and senior party figures who did not engage in the exchange expressed their disgust at the events.
"It's amateur hour by us," said one senior party strategist.
- Read more: Explained: What happens next in the race to be Fine Gael leader?
- Read more: Harris health review scheme has failed to remove a single manager from post
Fine Gael TDs will move on to a new group on the Confide messaging app at the suggestion of Chief Whip Regina Doherty.
The Confide app means messages will be sent via end-to-end encryption, will be automatically deleted once read and cannot be screen shotted - meaning leaking will become far more difficult.
Mr Varadkar said he is to set up a new, more confidential social media group so that messages "cannot be leaked to our dear friends in the media."
The move was taken after a message by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan about Health Minister Simon Harris was leaked to the media.
The message suggested that Mr Harris wants to leave the department and is colluding with Frances Fitzgerald over the leadership.
A number of senior ministers have not been members of the Varadkar WhatsApp group for some time, including his leadership rival Simon Coveney and Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny is a member though.
In a message posted tonight, Mr Varadkar said the group is being closed due to leaks. But he said a new form of messaging service will be set up which will be more secure.
A raft of TDs and senators quit the group after the leaks, including: Simon Harris, Alan Farrell, Maria Bailey, Josepha Madigan and senator Gabrielle McFadden.
The fiasco surrounding the issue has infuriated TDs and officials.
- Read more: Niall O'Connor: He set it up, now Leo helps spread the WhatsApp message - it's knives out time
Meanwhile, Mr Kenny is facing a potential motion of no confidence later this week if he fails to clearly set out his departure timeline.
A group of rebels, being led by the party's vice-chairman Pat Deering, will table the motion as early as Thursday if Mr Kenny does not clear the issue up at the parliamentary party meeting the previous night.
In a statement to this newspaper, a spokesman for Mr Kenny said: "The Taoiseach will address the parliamentary party on Wednesday and won't be making any comment on the issue (of leadership) before then."
Ministers are anxious to avoid such a confidence motion amid fears the party will be plunged into civil war.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Richard Bruton is expected to clarify his intentions tonight.
He will address the AGM of his Dublin Bay North branch and will be asked specifically if he intends to put his name forward as a leadership candidate.