Fine Gael Leadership Race Steps Up A Gear

Pope Francis will host the Irish President

Varadkar faces housing minister Simon Coveney in the race as nominations closed for the leadership of the governing Fine Gael party this week.

But his campaign spokeswoman Caitriona Fitzpatrick has insisted he is not pulling out of the race and tonight's planned rally will proceed.

Mr Kenny, Fine Gael's longest-serving Taoiseach, made his announcement at a brief parliamentary party meeting where some supporters were said to have been visibly upset at his long-awaited plans for departure.

"This is the party that needs to think big, this is the party that needs a plan and a vision for what Ireland wants to look like in 5, 10, 15 years time and you know what we are putting that plan together, that is what this leadership contest should be about".

Mr Varadkar, who is the minster for social protection, officially launched his campaign in Dublin on Saturday.

The Varadkar campaign is set to release full policy details in the coming days.

Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune is the only local senior representative to back Mr Coveney for the leadership.

Cork-born Mr Coveney, 44, would need to win a significant majority of non-parliamentary votes to win, something that few commentators believe is likely.

Mr Coveney is presently consulting with Fine Gael supporters ahead of expected announcement later this evening.

"Leo Varadkar has been no friend to Donegal", he said. He is a deep analytical thinker with a diligence to turn his ideas into reality.

"Leo has got off to a good start but there are two weeks to go so we will see how that plays out", said his opponent Coveney.

In what is expected to be a two-horse race, nearly 21,000 Fine Gael party members will vote at 26 polling stations from May 29 to June 1, and the parliamentary party, which includes 73 TDs, senators and MEPs, will vote in Dublin on June 2.

Minogue is close with Drogheda based TD Fergus O'Dowd and on Friday morning, he declared his support for the former Minister of Health.

He now has a virtually unassailable lead as Simon Coveney would require the support of around three quarters of Councillors and the wider Fine Gael membership. "As Fine Gael opposition spokesperson on transport, he opposed the Irish Government co-funding the A5 dual carriageway, linking Donegal to Dublin. Leo Varadkar has been no friend to the people of Donegal".

Deputy McHugh said on Thursday that Minister Varadkar understands "the unique circumstances of Donegal". He said of Varadkar: "He's the best qualified - he's capable, energetic and has energy".

She added "We expect the next 24 hours to be a hectic for our traders as already punters are out in force to have their say on the next Fine Gael leader".

Votes by parliamentary party members (TDs, Senators and MEPs) have more weight than the other colleges.

Sinn Féin Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn has described the frontrunner to replace Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach as "no friend to the people of Donegal".

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