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Ministers rule out early election as focus shifts to race to succeed Varadkar

Irish government ministers have rejected calls for an early election following Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s shock resignation as focus shifts to the race to succeed him.

In an emotional address outside Government Buildings in Dublin on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar announced he would step down as premier when a successor is confirmed.

He also quit as leader of the Fine Gael party with immediate effect but made clear he does not intend to stand down as a TD for Dublin West in the Dail parliament.

Mr Varadkar said his tenure as Ireland’s leader had been “the most fulfilling time” of his life but said he no longer felt he was the best person for the job.

The announcement came after a turbulent number of weeks for the Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Green Party three party coalition.

Earlier this month, it was resoundingly beaten in two referendums on changes ministers had proposed to the Irish constitution.

Mr Varadkar’s resignation has prompted calls from Sinn Fein and other opposition parties in the Dail for a general election.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan dismissed those demands on Wednesday, signalling a determination that the government should run its full term – which would see an election held in the first few months of next year.

Attention is now on the potential race within Fine Gael to succeed Mr Varadkar as party leader and Taoiseach.

Higher education minister Simon Harris, Justice minister Helen McEntee and Public Expenditure minister Paschal Donohoe are among the names touted as possible successors.

Deputy party leader Simon Coveney, who lost the last leadership contest in 2017, has ruled himself out of contention this time round.

Fine Gael members held a parliamentary party meeting and an executive council meeting on Wednesday night. At the first meeting it is understood Mr Varadkar pledged his unequivocal support for his successor.

Following the meeting of the executive council, it was agreed that nominations for the next party leader will open on Thursday morning at 10am and close next Monday March 25 at 1pm.

Candidates must be nominated by at least 10% (six members) of the parliamentary party, comprised of TDs, Senators and MEPs.

Should there be a leadership contest, voting for almost 20,000 eligible party members will take place across the country on Tuesday April 2 to Thursday April 4.

The new party leader will be announced on Friday April 5 in time for the party’s annual conference (Ard Fheis) on April 6, paving the way for the new taoiseach to be formally elected when the Dail returns after Easter recess.

Leo Varadkar steps down as Taoiseach
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar leaves after speaking to the media at Government Buildings in Dublin (Nick Bradshaw/PA)

Mr Varadkar said his decision to quit was both “personal and political”.

“I believe this government can be re-elected and I believe my party, Fine Gael, can gain seats in the next poll,” he said.

“Most of all I believe the re-election of this three-party government would be the right thing for the future of our country.

“Continuing to take us forward, protecting all that has been achieved and building on it.

“But, after careful consideration and some soul searching, I believe that a new taoiseach and a new leader will be better placed than me to achieve that, to renew and strengthen the team, to focus our message and policies, to drive implementation.

“And, after seven years in office, I don’t feel I’m the best person for that job anymore.”

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald told Mr Varadkar’s government colleagues it was time for an election.

“Rather than limping on, and rather than passing the office of taoiseach amongst yourselves again, the correct democratic route at this point is to go to the people,” she said in the Dail.

Mr Martin said the coalition was based on parties, not personalities, as he insisted the coalition could continue without Mr Varadkar.

“I remain committed to the continuation of government, to the fulfilment of our mandate and to the implementation of the programme for government,” he said.

Irish Budget 2024
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee (left) and Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris are among those tipped to succeed Leo Varadkar (centre) (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Ryan said the resignation should not disrupt the work of the coalition.

“Why would it stop us doing anything? We have work to do. At Cabinet today there was a full agenda, there will be a full agenda next week,” he said.

Mr Varadkar’s surprise departure comes ahead of local government and European Parliament elections in Ireland in June.

Over the last year, 10 Fine Gael TDs have announced their intention to step away from politics at the general election, fuelling speculation of internal discontent within the party.

The comprehensive rejection of the Government’s proposed constitutional amendments was a significant blow to Mr Varadkar and other coalition leaders who had campaigned for “Yes Yes” votes in the plebiscites.

Cabinet ministers met in Dublin for the first time on Wednesday since the referenda defeats.

Mr Varadkar, 45, has also just returned from the US where he was involved in several high-profile engagements with President Joe Biden as part of traditional St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

He is currently serving his second term as Taoiseach.

Mr Varadkar, who first became premier in 2017, once insisted he would not remain in politics beyond the age of 50, albeit he later said he regretted making that pledge.

During his time as Taoiseach, Ireland passed a landmark referendum to liberalise its strict abortion laws in 2018.

Mr Varadkar also played a key role in the Brexit negotiations, with a crunch meeting with then prime minister Boris Johnson at a manor house on The Wirral in England seen as a significant moment in paving a way for the deal on the UK’s exit from the EU.

Brexit
Leo Varadkar meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Thornton Manor Hotel on The Wirral, Cheshire (Government Information Service/PA)

The agreement staved off the prospect of a hard trade border being introduced on the island of Ireland, but it did prompt years of further political turmoil, particularly within unionism in Northern Ireland, over the creation of a so-called Irish Sea border on the movement of goods between the region and Great Britain.

Mr Varadkar was taoiseach at the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and announced a lockdown, in arguably his most famous address, while on an annual St Patrick’s Day trip to Washington DC.

In his first term as premier, Mr Varadkar led a minority government that was sustained in power by way of a confidence and supply deal with the then main opposition party Fianna Fail.

Following the 2020 general election, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail agreed to enter coalition for the first time – a seismic move for two arch rivals founded from opposing sides of Ireland’s civil war of the 1920s. The Green Party led by Mr Ryan joined as the administration’s junior partner.

The coalition deal saw Mr Martin serve as taoiseach for the first half of the mandate, with Mr Varadkar retaking the position at the mid point of the government term.

Mr Varadkar’s detractors will point to Ireland’s ongoing housing shortages and chronic problems within the health service as major government failings during his time as premier.

The political establishment in Ireland has also been under increasing pressure on migration issues in recent times, with an influx of tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from elsewhere in the world heaping further strain on state services and accommodation stock.

In his resignation speech, the outgoing Taoiseach said politicians were human beings who had their limitations.

“We give it everything until we can’t anymore and then we have to move,” he said.

He said Fine Gael candidates in forthcoming elections had a “better chance under a new leader”.

“I know inevitably there’ll be speculation as to the quote unquote ‘real reason’ for my decision. These are the real reasons. That’s it. I have nothing else lined up, I have nothing in mind, I have no definite personal or political plans, but I’m really looking forward to having the time to think about them,” he said.

Daffodil Day Launch
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launched Daffodil Day 2024 after making his announcement on Wednesday (Nick Bradshaw/PA)

Mr Varadkar said there was never a right time to resign high office but he said it was as “good a time as any” to step down.

“Budget 2024 is done,” he added. “Negotiations have not yet commenced on the next one. Institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are working again (with the return of powersharing in Northern Ireland) and our trading relationship with the UK in the post-Brexit era is settled and stable.

“The new taoiseach will have a full two months to prepare for the local and European elections and up to a year before the next general election.”

Mr Varadkar thanked his fellow coalition leaders and his party colleagues for their support.

“Most of all, I want to finish by thanking the people of Ireland for giving me the opportunity to serve them,” he said.

“And I’ll promise I’ll keep working for Ireland and my community in any way I can in future.”

Mr Varadkar was applauded by Fine Gael ministerial colleagues as he finished his speech and walked back into Government Buildings.