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I want to stay party chief if I lose election, says Varadkar

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar plays pool in 'The Midland Bar' while on the campaign trail in Enfield, Co. Meath

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar plays pool in 'The Midland Bar' while on the campaign trail in Enfield, Co. Meath

PA

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar plays pool in 'The Midland Bar' while on the campaign trail in Enfield, Co. Meath

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted he would look to remain as Fine Gael leader regardless of the outcome of the Irish general election as he mounted a frantic bid to save Dail seats yesterday,

Fine Gael TDs are privately fearful the party is facing significant losses this weekend, with existing seats at risk and its chance of adding second TDs in many constituencies now evaporating.

Mr Varadkar stopped in four counties and canvassed in the Dublin Mid-West, Meath West, Longford-Westmeath and Cavan-Monaghan constituencies.

Fine Gael sources in those areas acknowledged the party needs to shore up its vote in the coming days just to hold what it has.

It came as the Taoiseach's leadership of Fine Gael was thrown into question after former finance minister Michael Noonan made a highly unusual intervention to back his successor Paschal Donohoe for the party leadership in the future.

He told The Floating Voter podcast he had "no doubt at all" that Mr Donohoe would someday be leader but also backed Mr Varadkar for re-election.

Asked about those remarks in Dublin, Mr Varadkar denied the debate surrounding his own future had begun.

"I listened and Michael endorsed me to continue as Taoiseach and Paschal to continue as finance minister," he said.

"We expect, and we certainly hope, that after the election Fine Gael will emerge once again as the largest party.

"The opinion polls are within the margin of error, so this can be won, but if that doesn't happen for some reason, I have indicated that I will seek to stay on as Fine Gael leader."

Asked if this was in all circumstances, he said it was.

Mr Varadkar visited a school in Lucan and met voters in the towns of Enfield, Mullingar and Castlepollard before attending a Fine Gael rally in Virginia, Co Cavan.

There is now a fierce internal battle under way in constituencies across the country as Fine Gael seeks to hold onto seats in the Dail.

One sitting TD who thinks they are likely to lose their seat said: "I feel sorry for some people who probably only realised in the last week their seat was in trouble."

A long-serving Fine Gael politician admitted that after nine years in government ,"everyone is tired" of the party.

A party figure said even minister of state Damien English was "clinging on" in Meath West, where it is feared the fact he has two running mates could split his vote.

Councillors Noel French and Sarah Reilly were added when Fine Gael had a chance of a second seat - a possibility now viewed as unlikely.

With Fine Gael polling at between 20% and 21% in recent days, the party is, on those numbers, heading for a worse result than the 2002 general election, in which it won 23% of the vote and took just 31 seats.

The 2002 result triggered the immediate resignation of Mr Noonan as party leader, but Mr Varadkar has now clearly stated he will look to stay on and lead the party in opposition.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney, who lost out to Mr Varadkar in the 2017 leadership contest but continues to be linked with the position, said on Tuesday: "There is no question mark over Leo Varadkar's leadership."

Yesterday morning Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald accused Fianna Fail and Fine Gael of using issues in Northern Ireland to make political capital.

Speaking after Tuesday's leaders' debate on RTE television, Ms McDonald pointed to Mr Varadkar's criticism of Northern Ireland's public services as an example.

She said: "You saw in the debate last night, the issues around public services in the north, we've been shouting about this from the rooftops. The cutting of the block grant (and) a decade of Tory austerity, has been devastating for the health and public services.

"Then (Fianna Fail leader) Micheal Martin or Leo Varadkar use that to suggest that the Assembly is in some way comparable to the Dail, when they know London holds the purse strings. I think that's dishonest."

Mr Varadkar appeared on Newstalk Radio yesterday and repeated his argument that Northern Ireland was different from the Republic.

At one point he compared Stormont to a "local authority".

"He's talking out of both sides of his mouth," Ms McDonald said in response.

"It's not fair to say the Assembly is the equivalent of a local authority, but it doesn't have fiscal powers. When we talk about the damage to the health service, we're saying, 'Yes, what are you going to do to help us?'."

Belfast Telegraph