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It's on: Ministers begin to declare allegiances as Fine Gael campaign starts

A new leader will be in place by the June bank holiday weekend.

Updated 6.40pm

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

THE FINE GAEL leadership contest kicked off today – and so far the momentum is with Leo Varadkar.

More Fine Gael figures have declared for the Dublin TD – but Coveney was first out of the traps this morning, holding a brief press event alongside his supporters to set out his stall as to why he should be Taoiseach.

Enda Kenny announced yesterday evening that he would be stepping down, effective from midnight last night. Today was the first day of the leadership campaign proper.

Two man race 

It’s been confirmed the contest will be a two-horse race, after Education Minister Richard Bruton and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald said that they would not be putting their names forward.

Some ministers have said who they are backing - with Bruton and Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the Jobs Minister, throwing their support to Varadkar. Heather Humphreys, the Arts Minister, is also backing Varadkar.

Health Minister Simon Harris is standing by Coveney.

Coveney and Varadkar will hold events around the country over the next two weeks, and a new Fine Gael leader will be announced on Friday 2 June.

The Dáil will have to elect a new Taoiseach. That’s not expected to happen until at least 13 June.

The day’s events 

Speaking to a scrum of reporters and photographers outside Fine Gael HQ in Dublin, Coveney said he wanted to heal divisions in the country and change the direction of politics.

“I’m the person that can lead this party forward with positivity, strong leadership and optimism.

And most importantly I hope I can be a Taoiseach that can unite this country again behind believing in itself as a country that wants to change, modernise, be tolerant, be open to new ideas and big ideas that can actually re-balance this country away from the dominance of Dublin so that rural people and rural parishes can believe in their futures again.

8888 Simon Harris_90512128 Scrum of media surround the Coveney team. Source: Sam Boal

“I can be a Taoiseach that can unite this country again,” he said, as he talked up his experience in the high-profile ministerial briefs of Agriculture and Housing.

He added:
I want to extend that now well beyond the briefs that I’ve been involved in, to provide that kind of positive, strong leadership that can focus on uniting Ireland from the divisions that politics has unfortunately known for over the last ten years or so.

Asked by one reporter if he had the political ‘x-factor’, Coveney replied:

That depends what you describe as the x-factor, for me it is about delivery… I don’t think that a family sleeping in a hotel room tonight is looking for a Taoiseach with the x-factor – they are looking a Taoiseach that will solve their problems. That’s what I am about.

He said he believed it was going to be a very competitive contest.

“I hope it brings out the best in people, I hope it unites the party,” he said.

8969 Senators_90512146 Senators Michelle Mulherin, Frank Feighan, Catherine Noone, Martin Conway and Neale Richmond talks to the media as they declare their support for Leo Varadkar to run for the leadership of Fine Gael. Source: Sam Boal

Varadkar’s campaign also held an event earlier today – and released a statement to confirm that nine of Fine Gael’s 18 senators were backing the Dublin TD.

A raft of TDs who are supporting him held another event later.

However, there has been no sign of the candidate himself so far.

“Leo is the best man for the job,” said Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, insisting the party was very lucky to have two excellent candidates.

When asked why she was supporting Varadkar, Noone said he would increase support for the party.

He is a man of substance. He is a highly intelligent man. He is the right person for the leadership of the country at this point in time.

Senator Neale Richmond said one only had to look to Varadkar’s record to see why so many senators were backing him.

“He has always achieved and delivered for our party, and delivered for our country…it is time for really strong, new leader,” he said.

“Leo Varadkar could easily get a majority of Fine Gael senators to support him,” said Senator Martin Conway.

Following the senators, 12 TDs nailed their colours to the mast and declared their support for the Social Protection Minister.

These included some junior ministers – including Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources, Sean Kyne; Minister for Mental Health and Older People, Helen McEntee; Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development, Joe McHugh; and Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Eoghan Murphy.

Appearing alongside fellow Fine Gael deputies, Dublin-Rathdown TD, Josepha Madigan said she had “full faith” that Varadkar would be a good leader.

With reporting by Daragh Brophy 

Read: The man who would be king – is Simon Coveney on a well-worn path to Taoiseach?>

Liveblog: “For most people, he was a very bad Taoiseach”>

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