Kenny throws down gauntlet to rivals for Fine Gael leadership
Taoiseach says they need to show 'mettle' and he won't be stepping down 'for quite some time'
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has laid down the gauntlet to his leadership rivals, saying they need more time to show "their mettle..., characteristics and ability".
Mr Kenny told a gathering of 750 Fine Gael supporters - including most of his Cabinet - that he will not be stepping down as party leader "for quite some time".
Many in the room were left stunned by the strength of the Taoiseach's statement as he went on to talk about laying the groundwork for celebrating the centenary of the Free State in 2022.
All four ministers who are seen as contenders were present for the speech.
There have been reports that Mr Kenny intends to stay in place until at least 2018, when Pope Francis has been invited to visit Ireland. Fine Gael backbenchers Pat Deering and Michael D'Arcy last night expressed doubt Mr Kenny would still be at the helm by then.
Mr Kenny made his remarks at the Fine Gael Presidential Dinner on Saturday night.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, who was MC at the event, joked that potential successors - ministers Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald - should sit at the table closest to a defibrillator in the function room.
He added: "Minister Noonan tells me that Paschal Donohoe has been having palpations lately too so maybe he should go sit with them too."
In his speech, Mr Kenny went off-script to respond.
"You can rest assured Michael that all of those who are looking for the defibrillator can put their minds at ease.
"It's not going to have to be used for quite some time yet," he said.
"They've got to have some time, and I mean this as a point of seriousness, to show their mettle and characteristics and ability."
Senior party sources said afterwards that nobody anticipated such a strong signal of intent from the Taoiseach.
"He's going nowhere, that's clear now. It's one thing saying this kind of stuff at meetings in Castlebar but this was the entire party," said one minister. He basically said 'if you want my job, you'll have to fight me for it'".
Mr Kenny went on to outline what he sees as the qualities of good leadership, warning that the time ahead "is the most fragile of the last 50 years".
"We need to think very carefully and very clearly about what we do, about the political decisions we take," he added.
Noting events in Aleppo, the threat of Brexit and the democratic system of the United States being seriously challenged, he told the audience: "We will always do what is in the best interests of our country and our people... leadership is about the courage to take risks. Leadership is about the courage to say no. It's also about the courage to occasionally fail."
He added: "This is a time for clear heads and steady hands on the tiller of this little country in the north west of Europe."
Fine Gael backbenchers Mr Deering and Mr D'Arcy have previously raised questions about the future of Mr Kenny's leadership. Neither were in attendance at the dinner.
Mr Deering last night said he thought Mr Kenny should step down "in his own time", but noted that the Taoiseach had indicated he would do so before the next general election.
Mr Deering said he thought the election would be in 2018 and added: "I don't think anybody would be of the opinion that the Taoiseach will be leading Fine Gael in 2018."
Mr D'Arcy also said he expected the "conversation" about Mr Kenny's leadership to happen before then.