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A contest for Fine Gael leadership would benefit the party, McEntee insists

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre) with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee (left) and Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris (Brian Lawless/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre) with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee (left) and Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ireland’s Justice minister has said she would like to see a contest for the Fine Gael leadership but has ruled herself out of the running.

Helen McEntee dismissed the suggestion that criticism of her handling of riots in Dublin late last year had influenced her decision not to throw her hat in the ring to replace Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach.

Her comments came as several senior party members publicly backed Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris to succeed Mr Varadkar, who surprised many within the political establishment by announcing his resignation on Wednesday.

It is widely expected that Mr Harris will put his name forward for nomination, but it is yet unclear whether he will face any challenge.

Ms McEntee has followed party deputy leader Simon Coveney in ruling herself out of contention. Mr Coveney lost out to Mr Varadkar in the last leadership contest in 2017.

Other names being touted as potential leadership candidates include Public Expenditure minister Paschal Donohoe, Social Protection minister Heather Humphreys and Minister of State Jennifer Carroll MacNeill.

On Thursday morning, junior ministers Neale Richmond and Patrick O’Donovan, TD and former junior minister Frank Feighan, senators Tim Lombard and Michael Carrigy and MEPs Frances Fitzgerald and Maria Walsh were among Fine Gael members to publicly back Mr Harris as their new leader and taoiseach.

Ms McEntee said while she believed Mr Harris would be an excellent candidate she said would not make a decision on who to back until it became clear who was vying for the leadership.

The minister said whoever was ultimately elected leader would have her 100% support, but she said her preference was for a contested race.

“I hope we have a contest,” she told reporters at the opening of the new Forensic Science Ireland campus in Co Kildare.

“I think the last contest showed, and gave us the ability to show people, who we are as a party, what we represent.

“It allows us to engage with our members and others and, as I said, I think we have a number of fine people who would make an excellent leader for our party and indeed an excellent taoiseach.

“And I think we have a very strong partnership in coalition government, one that will stand for the full five years.”

The minister also rejected the suggestion that wanting an internal contest within Fine Gael while saying it was not the right time for a general election was contradictory. She insisted the Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Green Party coalition should serve out the remainder of its term, with an election happening early next year.

“The general public have voted in three parties and no one person defines any party,” she said.

“So I think it’s really important that as a transparent party we have a transparent process, that we have a competition, that our members have an opportunity to engage with the potential future leader of our party irrespective of whether we’re in government or not. We have done that before and I think it was hugely successful.

“Unlike other parties who simply anoint their leaders, we have a transparent and a clear process, and I think that should be the case here.”

Minister McEntee said she made her decision not to stand for the Fine Gael leadership in the “immediate future” one or two years ago, insisting that the fall out from the far right influenced riots in November was not a factor.

“That’s not to rule me out in the future, I’ve always said I’m ambitious, that hasn’t changed and that’s not going to change,” she said.

“But I believe now is not the right time for me.

“I think we have excellent colleagues in our party, many of whom would make an excellent leader, and I think an excellent taoiseach.”

Mr O’Donovan joined Ms McEntee at the event in Co Kildare.

“I think we’re very fortunate to have a lot of people in the party who would make potential leaders. But I have my mind made up and I will be supporting Minister Simon Harris, the Minister for Higher and Further Education,” he said.

“I’ve known Simon since we came into the Dail together in 2011. He’s a very good colleague of mine. And, you know, I have worked closely with him both in my role as OPW (Office of Public Works) minister and then on constituency and other related matters.

“And I think at the moment, where Fine Gael is, as we’re a year out from a general election, we have plenty of time, and plenty of scope to I think rebuild the organisation, refocus on the issues that are of importance to us and I think Simon is best placed to do that.”

Earlier, Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise Mr Richmond became the first Fine Gael TD to publicly back a candidate, weighing in behind “his friend for over 25 years”.

“If Simon Harris does declare, I’ll absolutely be backing him to lead our party and be the next taoiseach,” he said on RTE Radio.

Mr Richmond said Mr Harris had told him he was considering running.

He said he would welcome a contest between Fine Gael candidates, but added “I do think Simon Harris is the best person for the job”.

Asked if Mr Harris represented “more of the same”, Mr Richmond said: “Simon is something different.”

Ms Fitzgerald also said she is backing Mr Harris.

“I look forward to nominating Simon Harris as the next leader of Fine Gael later today,” the former justice minister said on X, formerly Twitter.

“He has an absolute commitment to the country and the Fine Gael party.

“I believe Simon has all of the necessary qualities to lead the country as Taoiseach at this critical time.”

Nominations will open for the Fine Gael leadership from Thursday morning and will close on Monday at 1pm.

Six members of the parliamentary party – comprising TDs, senators and MEPs – are needed to nominate a candidate, and the parliamentary party’s vote counts for 65% of the share when the party elects its new leader.

If there is a contest between two candidates, which many members of Fine Gael have said they expect and want to happen, hustings will take place before votes are cast.

The final result will be officially 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.