Kenny faces down his critics to ensure he will cling on to power until Easter
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has faced down his party critics to win a reprieve that will allow him cling to power until Easter.
The Fine Gael leader turned his ire on TDs and senators who have threatened his authority in recent days, warning them he is not afraid of a heave.
"When I hear talk of threats, caucuses and no-confidence motions after more than 40 years, they are of no interest to me. No interest to me," Mr Kenny pointedly told a private party meeting.
But, significantly, he tried to calm the internal disquiet by promising to address the leadership issue "effectively and conclusively" when he returns from his St Patrick's Day visit to the United States.
The Taoiseach's officials were last night finalising details of that trip, with a number of extra stops now expected to be added to the four days he will spend in Washington and New York.
Both frontrunners in the leadership contest, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, told the Irish Independent the Taoiseach had taken the heat out of the situation. "He showed his authority and experience, and of course he is in politics for 42 years and has seen the calms and the storms, as he reminded us," Mr Coveney said.
Mr Varadkar said he welcomed that "we're avoiding any division over a motion of no confidence, which I think nobody wanted".
The Taoiseach did not give a clear indication of when exactly he will step down but sources said they expected to begin the process of electing a new leader the week after he returns from meeting Donald Trump.
One minister said Mr Kenny gave a "clear indication" that a leadership contest will be "done by Easter".
The minister said it was now "up to Enda Kenny to honour that" and insisted the "contest begins [the] week after St Paddy's Day". That view was supported by at least two other Cabinet ministers.
Easter Sunday is on April 16, but if Mr Kenny stays in office until April 20 he will become the longest-serving Fine Gael Taoiseach in history.
During a speech that lasted just under 10 minutes, he took a series of swipes at his detractors, saying he is "not afraid" of motions of no confidence.
Sources say he told Dublin North West TD Noel Rock, who was the first politician to call for him to go, to "put down his pen and listen" - even though Mr Rock was the note-taker for the meeting.
Speaking from notes, he reiterated that he will not lead Fine Gael into the next election but insisted he would step down in his own way. Mr Kenny said the matter would be dealt with shortly after St Patrick's Day.
Other sources said that while the Mayo TD did not name either Mr Varadkar or Mr Coveney, his remarks were clearly directed at them and their camps. At the end, he received a sustained round of applause which lasted over a minute.
Although a number of TDs had openly talked about attacking the Taoiseach at the meeting, there was no debate on the issue.
"There wasn't a whimper out of any of the rebels. He had them on the ropes and told them all where to go," said one observer.
Afterwards, one TD described Mr Kenny's speech as "nasty" and said he was unsure how he and his colleagues would act.
However, Mr Coveney said the Taoiseach had adopted the "right approach" and now had "time and space to put a proper, structured process in place when he comes back from his US trip.
"The party is happy with that. We're the Government at the moment and it's important that the party thus stands together.
"He showed the authority tonight that can help to deliver the process needed, one that keeps the party and the Government together," the Housing Minister said.
Mr Varadkar said the party leader had "settled the matter".
"He's said that after St Patrick's Day he'll deal with the whole leadership issue clearly and effectively. I think everyone's satisfied with that and certainly I am too," the Social Protection Minister said.
In a statement, the chairman of the Fine Gael party, Martin Heydon, said the party was now "united".
Mr Kenny continues his Brexit tour today when he will meet Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel in Brussels.
He is also scheduled to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.