Fine Gael's young guns signal to Kenny that the time to leave has come
Fine Gael's new generation of ministers have signalled to Taoiseach Enda Kenny that it's time to step down as leader.
The starting gun on a leadership race was fired at a private party meeting last night where Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Simon Harris all spoke of the need to be "election ready".
While they did not directly criticise Mr Kenny's performance over recent days, sources said "the message was clear".
Ahead of a Dáil debate on confidence in the Government, Mr Kenny asked TDs and senators to allow him the "opportunity to talk with the parliamentary party at a different time".
This was widely seen as an acceptance by the Taoiseach that the growing unease over his leadership is coming to a head.
Sources close to the three ministers insisted their contributions were not co-ordinated - although observers noted they were spotted together in the Dáil bar the previous evening.
Mr Varadkar was the first to speak, and began by defending Mr Kenny. "We've all been there. Who hasn't made mistake?" he asked.
However, he went on to say Fianna Fáil is preparing for an election and Fine Gael should do the same.
Housing Minister Simon Coveney addressed the party immediately afterwards and echoed the election warning.
Sources said the Cork TD spoke passionately about the issues facing the party that need to be addressed.
And later Simon Harris, who is seen as an outsider in the leadership race but influential within the party, said they could "never have another week like this".
He urged the party to "use all the talent available", "listen more to colleagues" and "stand up for our policy platform".
Junior Minister Sean Kyne and Wexford TD Michael Darcy also expressed a view that the party needed to begin thinking about the next election.
Three politicians, including Mr Varadkar, suggested another meeting today in order to continue the conversation.
According to sources, Mr Varadkar said he was "happy to meet tomorrow or early next week".
However, this was ruled out by party chairman Martin Heydon and they will not meet again until next Wednesday.
One minister told the Irish Independent that Mr Varadkar's urgency to have another meeting showed "white-line fever".
"I think that went against the mood of most people. We needed to get over the confidence vote and deal with other issues first," the minister said.
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, who are also seen as potential contenders to replace Mr Kenny, did not mention an election in their contributions.
Ms Fitzgerald spoke about her role in the recent controversies, saying that she was determined to "get to the truth of this for the McCabes", while Mr Donohoe said Fine Gael needed to start making the public aware of "all the good work that is being done".
The party's deputy leader, Senator James Reilly, told the meeting: "When they are coming over hills to attack you, you turn your guns on them - not yourselves."
As word filtered back to the Dáil chamber about events at the Fine Gael meeting, a number of Opposition TDs speculated about Mr Kenny's retirement.
Read more: 'Casual and stumbling' - Angry scenes in the Dáil round off week of intense pressure for Enda Kenny, as Government win confidence motion
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin, who worked alongside Mr Kenny in the last government, said he took "no joy to see the position that you now find yourself in, Taoiseach".
"There are many in this chamber, on your side of the House as well as mine, who are waiting for your time as Taoiseach to come to an end.
"Some of them perhaps share the front bench with you. If this debate proves to be a tipping point that brings that end closer, Taoiseach, know that you have made a significant contribution to this State.
"But know too that the events of the last week are not an acceptable way for a country to be governed," Mr Howlin said.