Irish Prime Minister steps down as leader of ruling Fine Gael party

DUBLIN, May 18 (Reuters) - Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said on Thursday he will step down when a replacement for Prime Minister Enda Kenny is chosen next month, having presided for six years over the dramatic recovery of the Irish economy and banking system.

Kenny announced his plans at a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party at Leinster House this afternoon, with his retirement effective from midnight tonight.

Mr Donohoe said it's a "matter for the next Taoiseach" on whether or not a general election is held.

"He did his country much service, and I wish him the very best in the next chapter of his life".

Mr Varadkar has already secured the public endorsements of around 35 members of the parliamentary party.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said Kenny had worked diligently for his country over many years.

The two challengers were left to fight it out as Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Education Minister Richard Bruton ruled themselves out of the race.

Once the winning candidate has been safely ratified, party bosses are expected to switch their focus to planning for the next general election.

"Most importantly I want to take the country forward".

The Irish transport minister, Shane Ross, one of the independent MPs that Kenny has had to rely on to remain in power in his second government, described him as "a true statesman" who had the interests of his country "at his core".

Fine Gael's executive council will meet to officially open the contest to become party leader.

Mr Kenny paid tribute to constituents and supporters in Mayo who he has represented since 1975.

David Cameron took to Twitter to pay tribute, posting: "Enda Kenny TD was a strong leader for Ireland, a great partner for the United Kingdom, and remains a good friend".

His rival Simon Coveney, 44, fits the more traditional profile of a Fine Gael leader and is steeped in politics.

The other is Simon Coveney, the housing minister, who is the son of former Fine Gael minister Hugh Coveney. "That is precisely what we need right now and I believe Simon Coveney will deliver on this", Mr Harris said. Rank-and-file members are allocated 25 percent and councilors 10 percent.

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