Irish PM Kenny steps down as party leader

Should tonight's meeting end in Mr Kenny announcing his decision to step down, a leadership race between the two main protagonists Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar will most likely commence in earnest.

The new leader is expected be announced on June 2.

"Leo has the qualities that I believe will bring Fine Gael and our country into a new era of social inclusion and fairness that will be to the benefit of every person throughout the country".

Mr Varadkar said it had been his idea originally to extend voting rights for the leadership of Fine Gael to all the party's elected representatives.

In the 2016 general election, Fine Gael didn't win an overall majority.

DUBLIN, May 18 (Reuters) - Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said on Thursday he will step down when a replacement for Prime Minister Enda Kenny is chosen next month, having presided for six years over the dramatic recovery of the Irish economy and banking system.

Kenny has faced criticism over his cabinet's handling of a case involving a police whistle-blower and the government survived a no-confidence vote in February. Since then his Fine Gael-lead coalitions have survived years of political turbulence and mass protests against austerity.

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Kenny will remain as a party leader in acting capacity until his successor is elected.

As Enda himself said: "Let the games begin".

The Fine Gael government is propped up by their historic rivals Fianna Fail in a confidence and supply agreement.

Senator McFadden said Varadkar and Coveney were "high-calibre candidates and very capable guys" but she would be supporting the Cork man as she believed he was best placed to suceed on behalf of Ireland in the Brexit negotiations. It lost a quarter of its seats, only returning to power as the senior party in a fragile minority government.

Coveney has been a bit slower to rally strong support (Health Minister Simon Harris is one notable member behind him), but his camp yesterday insisted to our reporter that they were confident of a victory (as did Varadkar's).

The Dublin-born son of an Indian immigrant father and Irish mother became the first overtly gay cabinet minister when he declared his sexuality in a national radio interview in 2015 and has campaigned on issues such as same-sex marriage and more liberal abortion laws.

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