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Fine Gael leadership contest: Who is in the running?

Leo Varadkar once said he regretted making a pledge that he would see himself retiring from politics by the age of 50, but now the Irish premier’s words appear to be ringing true.

After announcing he will step down, attention now turns to the likely contenders to replace him as leader of Fine Gael and as taoiseach.

As Mr Varadkar’s decision to step down as head of the three-party coalition will not lead to an automatic general election, the next leader of Fine Gael is set to become the next taoiseach.

In his resignation speech, Mr Varadkar said he has asked for a new leader to be elected ahead of the party’s annual conference (Ard Fheis) on Saturday April 6, which would allow for a taoiseach to be elected when the Irish parliament returns after the Easter break.

Leo Varadkar steps down as Taoiseach
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced his resignation on Wednesday, as key contender Simon Harris looked on (Nick Bradshaw/PA)

There are a number of potential candidates to replace the Fine Gael leader:

– Simon Harris

Simon Harris is the bookies’ favourite to be the next leader of Fine Gael.

The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation & Science is a TD for Wicklow.

Aged 37, if he was to take over from Mr Varadkar he would become the country’s youngest ever taoiseach, taking that title from his predecessor.

He has been mooted as the next party leader and has himself not been shy about his ambitions of leading Fine Gael.

He stepped in as Minister for Justice while Helen McEntee was on maternity leave and also served as Minister for Health.

Mr Harris has a good relationship with the media and is seen as a good communicator, as well as being popular with party grassroots.

RTE report
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is also in the running (Niall Carson/PA)

– Helen McEntee

The Minister for Justice has faced a difficult six months after criticism of her handling of the violence and rioting in Dublin last November.

She survived a Sinn Fein motion of no confidence late last year following the knife attack on schoolchildren in Dublin city.

She is often seen as the biggest rival to Mr Harris to take over the leadership.

However, her turbulent time in the justice brief may have thrown her chances into jeopardy.

She put in a strong performance on Brexit negotiations and has been widely praised for her policies and legislation to tackle gender-based violence, however her upcoming hate speech legislation has come in for some criticism.

If elected, Ms McEntee would be set to become Ireland’s first ever female taoiseach.

Migration policy
Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe is said to be a steady pair of hands (PA)

– Paschal Donohoe

Known as “Prudent Paschal”, the Minister for Public Expenditure is viewed by many as being steady and reliable.

The Dublin Central TD has overseen several budgets.

He was first elected to the Dail in 2011, and since July 2020 has been the president of the Eurogroup of finance ministers.

There was speculation last year that he would take up the position as head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), however Kristalina Georgieva appears to be staying on in the role for a second term.

Mr Donohoe ruled himself out of that role last week.

Could that potentially clear the way for a run at the Fine Gael leadership?

What about Simon Coveney?

Mr Coveney, who lost the Fine Gael leadership contest to Mr Varadkar in 2017, has ruled out running for the position again.

The Cork South-Central TD is deputy leader of the party and is currently the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

For many he was long seen as a natural successor to Mr Varadkar.

He has held several ministerial portfolios, most recently as tanaiste and minister of foreign affairs from 2020.

Despite being the bookies’ second favourite to win he announced on Wednesday evening that he would not be having a tilt at the top job.

He said he suspected there will be more than one candidate in the running to lead the party.