* Kenny has said he will not lead Fine Gael in next election
* Calls for prompt handover grow as party's support slumps
* Contender wants that to happen after March 17 U.S. visit
(Adds fin min comments)
By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN, Feb 20 Ireland's finance minister said
on Monday he expects Prime Minister Enda Kenny - who has already
said he will not lead his party into an election due next year -
to say on Wednesday when he will step down.
With calls increasing for Kenny to spell out his plans, his
spokesman said he would not comment until a meeting of his Fine
Gael party on Wednesday.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan said he assumed Kenny would
provide a timetable at the meeting.
Kenny, prime minister since 2011, leads a minority
government that has become increasingly unstable and only
narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence last week over its
handling of a policing scandal.
One of the two top contenders to take over the centre-right
party said on Sunday that a new leader should be chosen after
Kenny's trip to Washington for the annual meeting with the U.S.
president to mark St. Patrick's Day on March 17.
"I think after that visit you will see, I hope, an orderly
and quite a quick transition to new leadership within Fine
Gael," Housing Minister Simon Coveney told national broadcaster
Calls for such a transition that would head off a possible
vote of no confidence in Kenny's leadership have gathered pace
since support for the party slumped. Fine Gael fell to second
place in an opinion poll on Sunday, eight points behind its main
rival Fianna Fail.
Kenny's government, which includes a number of independent
lawmakers, relies on Fianna Fail to abstain in key votes to
Fianna Fail's leader warned last week that the arrangement
was under serious strain and a frontbench spokesman on Monday
called on Fine Gael to deal quickly with the leadership issue.
Kenny, who has led his party since 2002, is expected to hand
over to a much younger leader. The main contender other than
44-year old Coveney is 38-year-old Social Protection Minster Leo
Once endorsed by parliament, Kenny's successor would also
lead Ireland's negotiations within the European Union over
Britain's departure from the European Union, a two-year process
due to begin at the end of next month.
Ireland is considered the EU economy most at risk from its
key trading partner and near neighbour's decision to quit the
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)