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Enda Kenny confirms he will step down as Fine Gael leader at midnight

By Kevin Doyle

Enda Kenny walked out of a Fine Gael meeting immediately after announcing his resignation as party leader this evening.

As TDs and senators gave him a standing ovation and broke into applause the Taoiseach choked up with emotion and asked: "Is it OK if I go now?"

He then left stunned colleagues, many of whom were said to be in tears.

The new leader of Fine Gael will be in place by June 2 after Mr Kenny formally announced his intention to step down.

The Taoiseach had told a meeting of party TDs and senators that he will continue to carry out his duties in an “acting capacity” until a successor is elected.

It clears the way for Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar to launch their campaigns to take over the party and become Taoiseach.

In a statement Mr Kenny paid special tribute to his wife Fionnuala, children and siblings “for their understanding of my work, and indeed for accepting the many intrusions of politics into family life in the interest of building our country”.

After the Fine Gael leadership contest Mr Kenny will remain in place as Taoiseach for a “brief but appropriate period”. This will allow his successor to meet with Fianna Fáil and the Independent members of government before a Dáil vote to become leader of the country.

“I would like to stress the huge honour and privilege that it has been for me to lead our party for the past 15 years, in opposition and into Government on two successive occasions.

“I thank all our members, past and present for that privilege.

“I thank all my loyal constituents and supports in Mayo for their unstinting loyalty since 1975, and for their support for my family previously in providing unbroken service to the County in Dáil Eireann since 1954,” Mr Kenny said.

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney are the early frontrunners for the job. However Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has not yet ruled herself out of contention, and there is speculation that Richard Bruton may run.

Mr Kenny's announcement brings to an end months of speculation about his departure, prompted by his own admission that he would not lead Fine Gael into the next general election.

The statement in full reads: "Last year I indicated that I would not lead the Fine Gael Party into the next General Election.  I have decided to implement that decision today.  Therefore I will retire as Leader of Fine Gael effective from midnight tonight, 17th May 2017.

"I will continue to carry out my duties as Party Leader in an acting capacity, until my successor is elected through the Fine Gael Leadership election process.

"I have asked that the Fine Gael Executive Council expedite this process and to have it concluded by close of business on Friday June 2nd.

"I want to assure people that throughout this internal process, I will continue to carry out my duties and responsibilities as Taoiseach in full.

"I intend to provide a brief but appropriate period for my successor to engage with groups and members supportive of Government, and with other Parties in the Dáil regarding provision of Government for the future.

"I would like to stress the huge honour and privilege that it has been for me to lead our party for the past 15 years, in opposition and into Government on two successive occasions.

"I thank all our members, past and present for that privilege.

"I thank all my loyal constituents and supporters in Mayo for their unstinting loyalty since 1975, and for their support for my family previously in providing unbroken service to the County in Dáil Éireann since 1954.

"I thank my personal staff for their commitment over many years to their duties.

"I especially want to thank my wife Fionnuala, our children, my siblings and their families for their understanding of my work, and indeed for accepting the many intrusions of politics into family life in the interest of building our Country. I could not have engaged as I did without that base."

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Fine Gael party chairman Martin Heydon has tonight said Mr Kenny helped repair the economy and assist in the “rebirth of a self-confident ireland”.

“His leadership of Fine Gael since 2002 has brought us to our most successful period in Government as the largest Party in Dáil Éireann for the last two terms.

“His leadership style was compassionate, pragmatic and inclusive, building a strong team which he led with energy and enthusiasm. Having inherited a country and an economy that was decimated by mismanagement, Enda's strong leadership and ability to make hard decisions was recognised both at home and abroad and saw our international reputation restored and strengthened,” he said.

“In focusing on job creation, which saw 206,000 jobs created since the establishment of the Action Plan for Jobs in 2012, Enda Kenny followed Fine Gael’s key guiding principles of enterprise and reward for those who look to work and contribute to society, while creating and supporting a fairer society for those who are vulnerable and in need of support.

“Our principle of equality of opportunity was never more evident than when Enda led the marriage equality referendum to a resounding victory in 2015. His determination to deal with longstanding issues such as an apology for survivors of the Magdalene laundries, the children's rights referendum, and legislating for the X Case after over two decades of inaction by several previous governments who ignored a Supreme Court ruling, are a mark of the man.”

Adams: 'He did his best'

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said Mr Kenny "did his best" and wished him well for the future.

Mr Adams: “Following the Taoiseach’s announcement this evening, I would like to wish Enda Kenny, his wife Fionnuala, and their family well. It will be a big a change in all of their lives.

“He and I disagree on many political issues, but I acknowledge that he did his best from his perspective.

“From Sinn Féin’s perspective, this was not good enough.

“In 2011, Mr Kenny came to power with the largest majority in the history of the state. He promised a democratic revolution.

“Six years on and his political legacy is dominated by crisis, chaos, and chronic lack of accountability.

“There is an ongoing and unprecedented crisis in housing and homelessness.

“The health service is in chaos and there is the deep crisis in policing and justice.

“The government’s strategy for dealing with the challenge of Brexit, acknowledged as the greatest threat to the economies of this island in generations, is deeply flawed.

“There also a clear lack of affinity with the North and a clear lack of consistent strategic engagement on the process of change that is required to sustain the political institutions.

“This is a do-nothing government courtesy of the confidence and supply arrangement with the government’s partner in Fianna Fáil.

“The reality is that so-called new politics, led by Mr Kenny and the Micheál Martin, isn’t new at all.

“As a result, there is a deep paralysis in the body politic. The reality is that Fine Gael, no matter who leads them, are firmly wedded to the policies that cause so much hardship in the daily lives of ordinary people.

“That will not change under Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney or any other contender. We need a change of Government, not just a change of Taoiseach.”

Since he was first elected as TD, his career as Fine Gael leader has been a series of ups and downs.

In 2002, party leader Michael Noonan led Fine Gael to its then worst performance, losing 23 seats. Taking over, Kenny rebuilt the party, winning back 20 seats in the 2007 election and a further 25 in the 2011 election.

He subsequently became the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be elected to a second consecutive term on 6 May 2016, after two months of negotiations following the 2016 election, forming a Fine Gael-led minority government.

He is the first taoiseach from Fine Gael since John Bruton (1994-1997), and the first Fine Gael leader to be be re-elected to government since Garret FitzGerald in 1982. He became the longest-serving Fine Gael Taoiseach in April 2017.

Background to Kenny's departure

Here are some of the key questions after Enda Kenny announced he is stepping down.

Is he not doing a good job?

That's not how he would see it. He is arguably his party's most successful Taoiseach. The longest-serving and the only Fine Gael Taoiseach ever re-elected. He has also presided over a near-miraculous rebound in Ireland's economic fortunes.

Everyone must love him?

Well ... it is not that simple. Despite his achievements and international reputation, his party took a battering at the polls in the last general election. His slogan of Let's Keep The Recovery Going grated with the many who weren't feeling it. He was only able to pull together a minority government - propped up by Fine Gael's ancient enemies Fianna Fail.

Ah, so the old foes are pulling the rug on him?

No. In fact, the heave is from within his own ranks. Young pretenders have their eyes on his throne. Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney to name but two.

Well, the little so-and-sos...

The way they see it, is that Fianna Fail will pull the rug on the government sooner or later anyway. So they want to be prepared for another general election. Enda said himself he won't lead the party into another poll, after their rout last time around.

Ahh! So what was keeping him from handing over the baton?

There were a few things he wanted to get out of the way first. Not least, his meeting with Donald Trump in the White House in March and the start of the Brexit negotiations. Also, every extra day in office further protected his claim as longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach and he wanted to stand down as much as possible on his own terms.

He'll be looking forward to putting the feet up now, I suppose..

Unlikely. Don't be surprised if a big job in Europe comes up for him.

An unlikely leader who confounded critics

Enda Kenny was an unlikely leader handed the reins of power during one of Ireland's most tumultuous economic upheavals.

Dismissed by many early on as a lightweight, he arguably confounded critics by forging an international reputation for decisiveness with a ruthless instinct for political survival.

The fitness fanatic and father-of-three's renowned energy and optimism made him, some say, the right man for the job at the time.

Others accuse him of putting his own late-blossoming political ambition before the best interests of the country.

The former national school teacher from Castlebar, Co Mayo, was first elected to the Dail - taking his late father's seat - in 1975.

Despite a few years as Tourism Minister in the 1990s, his first quarter of a century in national politics was unremarkable.

When he eventually stood for the leadership of Fine Gael in 2001, he vowed to electrify the party.

It was quipped he was more likely to electrocute them, such was his relative obscurity and the party's dwindling relevance.

In the event, he lost out to Michael Noonan, but with undoubted tenacity ran again to take control of the battered ranks after a disastrous showing at the polls a year later.

Within a few more years - dramatic years, as Ireland was thrust from boom to bust - Kenny had rebuilt Fine Gael into a force that won trust among rising numbers of voters to clear up a mess presided over by their arch rivals Fianna Fail.

Sweeping to victory in the 2011 general election - the country still reeling from an historic economic implosion - he grandiosely declared a democratic revolution.

In reality, his resurgent party had to enter a coalition with Labour to take control.

Rejecting his caricature as a lucky general, he set about stewarding Ireland back on track to recovery, with the help of an austerity road-map imposed by the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Union troika.

While never particularly popular at home, he forged a persona for himself overseas and soon saw himself in the role of international statesman.

Alongside the headline "The Celtic Comeback", he became the first Irish leader since Sean Lemass to make the cover of Time magazine's European edition.

By the end of 2013 he had freed Ireland from the shackles of its troika masters, officially exiting the humiliating international bailout programme.

Like a phoenix from the ashes, the Irish economy became the fastest growing in Europe again and unemployment nose-dived.

But many believe Kenny could have got a better deal from the bailout, which still leaves Irish taxpayers shouldering massive debts to cover speculators and investors after the banks collapsed.

Convinced of his trajectory, he led his party again into the 2011 general election urging the country to "Keep the Recovery Going".

Huge numbers, who weren't feeling any recovery but were still suffering from bruising austerity measures, turned against Fine Gael as well as Labour.

The coalition was pummelled but Kenny kept his job.

Proving once again his mettle as a political survivor, he offered Fianna Fail a once unthinkable "grand coalition" with his depleted ranks.

After months of horse-trading, he agreed to lead a new minority government, propped up by the old enemy.

An era of "new politics" was promised but in effect the tethered administration has been slow to make any changes.

Nonetheless, Kenny achieved his ambition of being the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach and the only one re-elected.

His unprecedented attack on the Vatican over clerical child abuse cover-ups will go down as a career highlight.

He also claimed credit for helping swing the gay marriage referendum, which made headlines around the world.

But his failure to get to grips with the depth of feeling at home on the imposition of water charges amid a welter of tax hikes and levies, the spiralling homelessness crisis as well as countless controversies which have rocked the Garda loom large over his premiership.

Irish Independent

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