Irish PM Kenny steps down as party leader

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"I want to assure people that throughout this internal process, I will continue to carry out my duties and responsibilities as Taoiseach in full", he said.

Kenny, prime minister since 2011 and leader of his party for nearly 15 years, is expected to be replaced by either Leo Varadkar, the social protection minister, or Simon Coveney, the housing minister. He had previously said he wouldn't lead the party into the.

But at a parliamentary election a year ago, Fine Gael suffered a backlash from voters who felt the recovery was passing them by.

Kenny has faced criticism over his cabinet's handling of a case involving a police whistle-blower and the government survived a no-confidence vote in February.

The Mayo TD was first elected to the Dáil in 1975, and he made his announcement in a statement this afternoon at a meeting of the parliamentary party this evening.

The Fine Gael leadership contest will begin on Thursday, with nominations closing on Saturday.

He added: "Having inherited a country and an economy that was decimated by mismanagement, Enda's strong leadership and ability to make hard decisions was recognised both at home and overseas and saw our worldwide reputation restored and strengthened".

"Therefore, I will retire as leader of Fine Gael effective from midnight tonight 17th May 2017", he said.

"I would like to pay tribute to the Taoiseach for his dedication and service to his country and party over many, many years". It lost a quarter of its seats, only returning to power as the senior party in a fragile minority government.

National broadcaster RTE said last week that of those in the parliamentary party who had confidentially declared their support - around half - 23 favored Varadkar, the son of an Indian immigrant who is Ireland's first openly gay minister.

"You might think that's an exaggeration, it's not, he gave it everything", he said.

The two favourites are Leo Varadkar, who is the son of an Indian immigrant, and Simon Coveney, whose father was also a government minister. He is married with three daughters.

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