Relief in Fine Gael as Kenny finally signals date for stepping aside
A new leader of Fine Gael will be elected over the June bank holiday weekend - after Taoiseach Enda Kenny finally signalled a date for stepping down.
Mr Kenny told TDs and senators last night that he will address the leadership question next Wednesday, May 17.
This has been widely interpreted as a clear sign the Taoiseach is preparing the way for Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney to take over.
"He's ready to go. He still doesn't want to but he knows the time has come," a source close to Mr Kenny told the Irish Independent.
While Mr Kenny did not explicitly state he will announce a retirement date, sources in both the Varadkar and Coveney camps are satisfied the race will formally begin next week.
A number of TDs described the mood in the party as "relieved" after the Taoiseach indicated he will end the media speculation.
Under Fine Gael rules this timeline would facilitate a two-and-a-half week contest, with voting on the bank holiday weekend.
The Irish Independent understands there will be four days of "rolling ballots" at around 25 regional centres over the bank holiday weekend.
TDs, senators and MEPs will cast their vote at a special meeting of the parliamentary party which is likely to be held in Leinster House on Tuesday, June 6.
The ballots will then be counted at a venue in Dublin that has yet to be decided.
The Dáil is not scheduled to sit on the first week of June - meaning the ballot will not interfere with normal government business.
Around 21,000 Fine Gael members will be entitled to vote.
Prior to the vote they will be invited to hustings in Dublin, Cork, the Midlands and the West where the contenders will go head-to-head in a debate that will also be streamed live on the internet.
Sources in both camps confirmed last night that they already have plans in place for the first day of the campaign, including the unveiling of key supporters.
One source suggested that as many as 40 to 50 members of the parliamentary party could declare their preferences in the 24 hours after the Taoiseach formally sets the date.
"Some will wait to see who the likely winner is and try to piggy back on them - but most people have a clear idea of who they will vote for," a Coveney source said.
Major canvassing of support has been under way within the confines of Leinster House for weeks.
One minister said: "Everybody is happy now that this is actually going to happen. The contest can move out into the open."
Ministers are expected to be evenly split. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan are not unlikely to publicly reveal their preferences but 'Team Coveney' is relying on their votes. Health Minister Simon Harris is also set to declare on day one for Mr Coveney.
Mr Varadkar is understood to have the backing of Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Junior Finance Minister Eoghan Murphy. Both sides are battling for the support of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Education Minister Richard Bruton who have yet to rule themselves out of the race.
Although Mr Kenny will hand over the reins of the party in early June, he may stay in place as Taoiseach for a number of weeks afterwards.
Sources suggested this will give the new leader time to become fully acquainted with the internal workings of the party.
They will also have to meet with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to ensure his TDs will vote for a smooth transition of power.
Independent members will also want a meeting to gain assurances as to their positions in government, although the Independent Alliance's Shane Ross has said they will not be seeking any revision to the Programme for Government.