LATEST: Mairead McGuinness announces support for Simon Coveney for Taoiseach

UPDATE 9.45pm: Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness has publicly said she will support Simon Coveney in the race to become the next taoiseach just six days out from the vote, writes Fiachra O'Cionnaith

The third husting between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney is getting underway around now in Ballinasloe.

The pair met last night in Carlow IT - which failed to produce any real talking points.

Both men said if they were to become the next Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael they would NOT enter into Government with Sinn Féin.

UPDATE 9.45pm: Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness has publicly said she will support Simon Coveney in the race to become the next taoiseach just six days out from the vote, writes Fiachra O'Cionnaith

The Ireland East MEP confirmed the move in a statement just before 9pm on Saturday evening, as the third of four leadership hustings between Mr Coveney and Leo Varadkar took place in Ballinasloe, Co Galway.

The decision by Ms McGuinness to back the Housing Minister over the Social Protection Minister means the parliamentary party gap between both candidates now stands at 46 to 21 in Mr Varadkar's favour.

Six parliamentary party members - including outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, outgoing Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, Fine Gael chair Martin Heydon and MEP Sean Kelly - have yet to declare.

However, it is widely believed Mr Kenny and Mr Noonan will support Mr Coveney. While Mr Creed and Mr Heydon are unlikely to express a view publicly before next Friday's vote result, Mr Kelly has suggested he will do so after this weekend's hustings.

The next Fine Gael leader - and therefore Ireland's next taoiseach - will be chosen by three "electoral colleges" including TDs, senators and MEPs in the parliamentary party (65%), councillors (10%) and grassroots (25%).

While Ms McGuinness's declaration in favour of Mr Coveney - which came after she appeared in the crowd at his grassroots meeting in Co Cavan on Tuesday - is significant, the Housing Minister is still likely to need to convince up to six TDs, senators or MEPs currently backing Mr Varadkar to change their minds.

Grassroots members will be able to vote throughout next week, with parliamentary party members voting before 12 noon on Friday.

The result will be made known by late afternoon that day.

EARLIER: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are at the husting for members in the West and North West.

They have already made pitches on why each of them would be best served for people in the area:

"I want to say something important about the regions and rural Ireland, said Minister Varadkar.

"As a minister, I never sought to be, and never was a minister just for Dublin. Anymore than Simon was a minister just for Cork."

Minister Coveney added: "I want to talk about changing the narative in politics about the west of Ireland.

"I hear too much talk in Dublin about the need to reach out to the regions. The regions! This is the west of Ireland."

    Hustings schedule

    Leadership candidates Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar will take part in four regional hustings at the following venues:

    Thursday, May 25: Red Cow Hotel, Dublin, 8pm

    Friday, May 26: Barrow Centre, IT Carlow, 8pm

    Saturday, May 27: Shearwater Hotel, Ballinasloe, Co Galway, 8pm

    Sunday, May 28: Clayton Hotel Silver Springs, Cork, 8pm

    The road ahead:

    About 21,000 rank-and-file members have a vote, along with 232 party councillors.

    Voting for the eligible party members will take place nationwide at 26 polling stations on Monday May 29, Tuesday May 30, Wednesday, May 31 and Thursday June 1.

    The parliamentary party will meet and vote in Dublin on Friday, June 2. All votes will be brought to a National Count Centre in Dublin on that Friday, where they will be will be verified and counted under the supervision of the National Returning Officer.

    Votes will be weighted in accordance with the Fine Gael electoral college rules, with the 73 members of the Parliamentary Party (PP) accounting for 65% of the total vote, almost 21,000 party members accounting for 25% and 235 local representatives (232 councillors and 3 Údarás na Gaeltachta members) accounting for the remaining 10% of the vote.


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