AN Taoiseach Enda Kenny has announced that he is to stand down as leader of the Fine Gael party at midnight tonight, triggering a formal election between Minister Simon Coveney and Minister Leo Varadkar to replace him.
Speaking at a Fine Gael parliamentary party this afternoon, he announced the end of his 15-year tenure as leader, triggering a contest to replace him that will conclude by Friday, June 2.
"I would like to stress the huge honour and privilege that it has been for me to lead our party for the past 15 years, in opposition and into government on two successive occasions. I thank all our members, past and present, for that privilege," he told his party.
Mr Kenny also thanked his staff, his supporters in his home county of Mayo, and his wife, Fionnuala, and their family.
He will act as interim leader until then and has indicated that he will give his successor a "brief but appropriate" period to negotiate with the rest of the Dáil to secure a government going forward.
Formal announcements are expected imminently from Mr Coveney and Mr Leo Varadkar to confirm that they will contest the race, which has already been going on behind the scenes. An Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Minister Richard Bruton have both refused to rule themselves out to date.
Candidates will have until Saturday to get eight parliamentary party members to submit their nominations, and endorsements are expected to starting coming immediately.
While Mr Varadkar is leading in opinion polls, party members, including those in the Oireachtas, see it as a close race between the two Ministers. While Mr Coveney has only been actively campaigning for a number of weeks, he is believed to have made up a significant amount of ground over his rival. The parliamentary party will have 65% of the vote, the councillors will have 10%, and the general membership, which is bigger in Cork than Dublin, has the remaining 25%.
One of four debates between the candidates is expected to be held in Cork in the coming weeks.
All 22 of Fine Gael's councillors in Cork are expected to announce their support for Mr Coveney in the coming days, and many did so already at a meeting in Cork North West earlier this week.
Senator Tim Lombard is on Mr Coveney's top table for the campaign, while Cork North Central TD Dara Murphy and Senator Jerry Buttimer have also expressed their support publically. Cork East TD David Stanton and MEP Deirdre Clune are also expected to give their backing. Minister Michael Creed may be a cause for concern in the Coveney camp, but it is believed that he will end up backing his Cork colleague, while Cork South West TD Jim Daly is expected to break ranks and back Mr Varadkar.