Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny has announced he will step down as leader of his party Fine Gael at midnight tonight following months of speculation about his departure date.

In a statement released via Twitter, Kenny said that he would remain as acting party leader until his successor was elected on June 2 and continue to serve as Taoiseach as well.

He added that it had been a “huge honor and privilege to lead our party for the past 15 years, in opposition and into Government on two successive occasions.”

In addition, he thanked his, “loyal supporters and constituents in Mayo for their unstinting loyalty since 1975, and for their support for my family previously in providing unbroken service to the County in Dáil Éireann since 1954.”

— Enda Kenny (@EndaKennyTD) May 17, 2017

Kenny was elected leader of Fine Gael in 2002 after a bruising defeat at the hands of the party’s historic rival Fianna Fáil - then enjoying high levels of popularity as the Celtic Tiger saw huge increases in personal wealth, tax cuts and higher levels of public spending.

The 2007 election saw Fine Gael increase their seat tally by a respectable 19 seats in Dáil Éireann but it was in 2011 that the party was swept to power after the deepest recession in the nation’s independent history saw Ireland left broke and humiliatingly bailed out by the EU and IMF.

Fianna Fáil, for so long the natural party of government in Irish politics, were relegated to third place and Kenny won a record 76 seats and formed a coalition with the Irish Labor Party.

@EndaKennyTD rebuilt @FineGael from ashes of 2002 & brought Ireland back from the brink of financial ruin. His place in history is secured

— Sen.Dr James Reilly (@DrJamesReilly) May 17, 2017

After five years of austerity government, the party won a second term in 2016 but Kenny was perceived as running a poor campaign and Fianna Fáil came within six seats of Fine Gael’s total -  a performance considered something of an upset after the party’s calamitous result in 2011. Chastened, Kenny announced he would not lead the party into a fourth general election.

Since then the Taoiseach often appeared to be living on borrowed time, constantly dogged by questions about his departure date and yesterday it was leaked that today he would finally name a date at a meeting of the Fine Gael Parliamentary party.

A report in the Irish Times suggested it had been a “very emotional” meeting with the man who last month became his party’s longest serving Taoiseach - beating the previous record held by John Costello.  

Now focus will move to the race to succeed him, with two confirmed, and potentially three, candidates in the mix.

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar is considered by most to be the favorite with slightly more declared support than rival Simon Coveney, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

If elected Varadkar would make history as Ireland’s first gay Taoiseach and Western Europe’s first non-white head of Government.

Read more: Is Ireland ready for a gay Taoiseach?

.@finegael Thank you Enda. FG’s most successful leader. Brought FG from decline to success, Ireland from brink of bankruptcy to prosperity

— Leo Varadkar (@campaignforleo) May 17, 2017

By contrast, Coveney hails from a more traditional Irish political background; a legislator for Cork South Central he was first elected to the Dáil in 1998 after his father died - a practice so common in Ireland that both Kenny and his predecessor Brian Cowen entered politics in the same way.  

Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Justice Frances FitzGerald has fudged questions about her own leadership plans and said she would make a statement once Kenny announced his retirement date. At the time of writing, no statement has yet been made but Minister for Children Katherine Zappone has endorsed her.

Katherine Zappone says she'd like to see Frances Fitzgerald throw her hat into the Fine Gael leadership race - adds "did I just say that?"

— Sean Defoe (@SeanDefoe) May 17, 2017

If elected she would be the first Irish woman to lead an Irish government.

All candidates will be expected to sign a so-called “fair play” contract if they run, which will ban certain campaign tactics - such as distributing opinion polls with questionable methodologies.

For the first time, the leadership will be determined by party members as well as elected officials. Members of the Oireachtas (Congress) will have 65% of the vote, local councilors will have 10% and the remaining 25% will be given to grassroots members.

Gerry Adams says Enda Kenny "did his best" and wishes him well for the future

— Belfast Telegraph (@BelTel) May 17, 2017

Once he or she has received the seals of office from President Michael D Higgins, the new Taoiseach will have to contend with Brexit negotiations, a housing crisis, a likely referendum on abortion and a precariously small majority in Dáil Éireann.

Currently, Fine Gael have 50 seats and are supported by nine independent TDs. The opposition Fianna Fáil party have promised to abstain in motions of confidence and supply but was the government’s popularity to tumble they would likely end the agreement and trigger an election. Meaning the new Taoiseach’s time in power could be very, very brief.

H/T: Irish Times/RTÉ