Two frontrunners in race to succeed Enda Kenny

Meanwhile, the party has revealed details of how Enda Kenny's successor will be chosen, with the party using an electoral college system for the first time.

Leo Varadkar, 38, may appear an unlikely front-runner in what is still regarded as a socially conservative, relatively homogeneous country.

Setting out his stall, he said: "I want to take the country forward".

He said he wanted a new social contract and everyone should have equal opportunity.

"For me, I'm in politics to be positive and constructive", he said.

He said the county would be a priority for him should he become Taoiseach.

Mr Donohoe stated his intention to vote for Mr Varadkar in an interview on RTÉ's Morning Ireland. I have chose to implement that decision today. It said 13 backed Coveney.

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TAOISEACH ENDA KENNY is to retire as Fine Gael leader, and step down as head of government.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, meanwhile, declared his intention to support Mr Varadkar saying he was the "change candidate".

The Housing Minister says he will strive for balanced regional development if elected as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach.

Thanking those in the Fine Gael party, his constituents and family he announced he would be stepping down with immediate effect.

He also claimed that some of Varadkar's achievements from his various ministerial positions show why he would be ideal to lead the party.

Earlier this week, the Irish Independent reported that if successful in the leadership contest, Varadkar will seek a special arrangement to keep Northern Ireland within the single market to ensure an "invisible" border between the north and the rest of Ireland.

Joe Carey is due to make an announcemnet in the coming days, while Junior Minister Pat Breen is due to declare tomorrow.

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The contest will include four hustings in Dublin, Carlow, Ballinasloe and Cork over four nights from next Thursday.

"I have asked that the Fine Gael executive council expedite this process and to have it concluded by close of business on Friday June 2".

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.

He advised people not to confuse someone who is good at putting deals together with someone who is weak.

Ireland's unemployment rate has fallen to 6.2 percent from 15.1 percent in 2012 and the government is forecasting a deficit of 0.4 percent of GDP this year.

Mr Kenny added: "I could not have engaged as I did without that base".

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