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'He gave me a blessing as well when he was at it' - Kenny in joking form over leadership challenge

Several ministers, including Harris, refused to rule themselves out of the expected contest.

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny
Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated 10.15pm

AN TAOISEACH ENDA Kenny was in joking form this earlier this evening about the challenge facing him in the days ahead over his leadership of Fine Gael.

Addressing the crowd at an event in Balla, Co Mayo – his home country – Kenny joked about the serious challenges he faces as pressure mounts for him to announce when he will step down as leader of Fine Gael.

“Fr Denis blessed the place there today,” Kenny told the crowd, as opened the Balla Community Woodlands project.

“A very ecumenical blessing. He gave me a blessing as well when he was at it,” the Taoiseach said to laughs from the crowd and applause.

As you know I did plant an oak tree. There with a lovely spade and good soil, and to plant a tree you have to dig a hole and I said this is for the tree and not for me okay.

Kenny refused to answer any further questions about his leadership ahead of his addressing a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday, where he is expected the lay out his timeline for stepping down as leader of the party.

Earlier, Health Minister Simon Harris took a sideswipe at the sense of humour of one of his Cabinet colleagues as he answered questions about the expected Fine Gael leadership battle.

It followed the leaking of an internal Whatsapp conversation between Fine Gael members. Details published yesterday in the Irish Times showed Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan suggest that Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald was urging Health Minister Simon Harris to enter the leadership contest.

Fine Gael TD Pat Breen made the comment “Your man is doing well” to which Flanagan answered: “Thanks. He hasn’t announced yet but Frances is encouraging him. He wants out of Health”.

In a tweet yesterday Harris said he wasn’t going to indulge in idle speculation about the leadership, while, speaking earlier, Flanagan described his comment in the group as jovial Sunday afternoon banter.

Speaking to RTÉ at an event today, Harris said:

My colleague Charlie Flanagan has many, many fine attributes – he’s a great colleague of mine but telling funny jokes on a Sunday afternoon is clearly not one of them.

Tweet by @Simon Harris TD Source: Simon Harris TD/Twitter

However, he refused to say if he would be putting his name forward for the leadership contest, telling reporters that if and when a vacancy arose he would consider his position.

Harris is not the only minister to refuse to rule out entering the race today. Education Minister Richard Bruton, who led an ill-fated heave against Kenny in 2010, was also asked by reporters about his intentions.

He would only say that he believed we were at a time when there was a “significant threat to Ireland” and noted the “serious challenges” that were being posed, without directly answering the question about the leadership.

Tweet by @Juliette Gash Source: Juliette Gash/Twitter

Elsewhere, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said she’d wait for Enda Kenny to declare his plans before declaring her position on a leadership bid.

Speaking in Brussels today, Finance Minister Michael Noonan said that he expected Kenny to lay out the timeline for his departure when he addresses the party on Wednesday.

Space

The Taoiseach has been under increasing pressure since last week when members of his own party amplified their calls for him to set out a timeline for his retirement.

The speculation was heightened yesterday as the contents of the Whatsapp group became public knowledge.

Kenny said in advance of last year’s general election that he wouldn’t lead his party into a subsequent election and pressure on his position grew in the wake of a poor Dáil performance, as the country reeled from the latest Garda whistleblower revelations.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney said yesterday that Kenny deserves space to make his decision. That’s despite Coveney and Leo Varadkar last week saying the party needs to be on an election footing.

Speaking on RTÉ’s the Week in Politics, Coveney said that he feels Kenny should be given the space to make his own decision.

In my view we should trust the Taoiseach with this. My view is that we should trust the Taoiseach to go to Washington, but I expect that the leadership within Fine Gael and ultimately within the country and the issues around that will be dealt with very, very quickly after that.

Coveney added that the transition to a new leader within Fine Gael “needs to be done relatively soon” but declined to be more specific than that.

public opinion poll released yesterday morning showed that support for Fine Gael is dropping and a large majority of people are unhappy with Kenny’s leadership of the country.

Additional reporting Christina Finn, Daragh Brophy and Cormac Fitzgerald

Read: ‘Distracting and destabilising’: Leo Varadkar says ‘everyone is waiting’ on a decision from Enda >

Read: How does Fine Gael go about electing a new leader? >

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