Irish PM to respond to leadership questions as disquiet grows


 Reuters International

FILE PHOTO: Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaks to the media on arrival at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in Dublin, Ireland November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny may lay out a timetable for stepping down at a meeting of his ruling Fine Gael party on Wednesday.

With calls increasing for Kenny to spell out his plans, his spokesman said on Monday that the prime minister would not comment on the issue until that meeting, planting it firmly in the limelight.

Kenny, who has been prime minister since 2011, has said he will not lead the party into the next election due late next year.

His minority government, however, has become increasingly unstable and only narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence over its handling of a policing scandal last week, prompting concerns among his colleagues.

One of the two leading contenders to take over as leader of the centre-right party said on Sunday that a new leader should be chosen after Kenny's trip to Washington for the annual meeting with the U.S. president to mark St. Patrick's Day on March 17.

"I think after that visit you will see, I hope, an orderly and quite a quick transition to new leadership within Fine Gael," Simon Coveney, the country's housing minister, told national broadcaster RTE.

Fine Gael's vice-chairman said last week that he expected Kenny to inform the party's internal meeting on Wednesday of an exact timetable for his departure and hoped it would not be necessary to table a motion of no confidence in his leadership.

Calls for such a timetable have gathered pace since support for the party slumped in recent opinion polls. Fine Gael fell to second place in an opinion poll on Sunday, eight points behind its surging main rival Fianna Fail.

Kenny's minority government, which includes a number of independent lawmakers, relies on Fianna Fail to abstain in key votes to govern.

Fianna Fail's leader warned last week that the arrangement had come under serious strain and a frontbench spokesman on Monday called on Fine Gael to quickly deal with the leadership issue.

Kenny, who has led his party since 2002, is expected to hand over to a much younger leader whom members hope can reverse their fortunes. The main contender other than 44-year old Coveney is 38-year-old Social Protection Minster Leo Varadkar.

Once endorsed by parliament, any successor to Kenny would also take over Ireland's negotiations within the European Union over Britain's departure from the European Union, a two-year process due to begin at the end of next month.

Ireland is widely considered the EU economy most at risk from its key trading partner and near neighbour's decision to quit the bloc.

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Reuters

 Reuters International