The candidats have outlined their visions for the party, with three more events planned over the next three nights
The two main contenders to become Ireland’s next Taoiseach have gone head-to-head in Dublin in the first of four Fine Gael leadership hustings.
The events, taking place over four evenings this week, offer the two Fine Gael leadership candidates - Ministers Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney - an opportunity to outline their vision for the party and debate various issues ahead of next week’s vote.
Minster Varadkar appears to have opened up a commanding lead in terms of support from declared members of the Parliamentary Party – however Minister Coveney has the race is not over.
A total of 46 TDs and Senators have placed themselves in the Varadkar camp with 20 members declared for Minister Coveney.
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 accounting for the remaining 10%.
Meanwhile, voters in Fine Gael and the wider electorate have been found to favour Minister Coveney in a new opinion poll.
The IPSOS/MRBI survey for The Irish Times has been released tonight as the first 'husting' gets underway.
Among all voters, Minister Coveney leads his rival by 42% to 37%.
Among Fine Gael voters the lead is 48% to 44% - though the margin of error is higher because of the smaller sample.
Up to 800 people attended last night's event at Dublin's Red Cow Hotel which was streamed live online:
Similar events will take place over the next three days in Carlow, Galway and in Cork.
Minister Varadkar was first to take the stage yesterday evening, and was quick to point out that whatever the result of the leadership contest, both candidates will “don the Fine Gael jersey and work together.”
He said he believes he is best placed to widen the appeal of Fine Gael and, “open up a conversation with those who voted for us in the past and have lost faith in us and those who have never considered voting for us before.”
He warned that the party should not attempt to be “all things to all people” saying that he views that as "the Fianna Fáil way."
“It might work for them on occasion but it will never work for us,” he said. “If we try it, we will end up being nothing for anyone. We have tried it in the past and ended up in opposition for decades as a result and we should not make that mistake again.”
He said he views Sinn Féin as “the greatest threat to everyone’s prosperity, including their own supporters” warning that they are “getting support in places they never got it before.”
He insisted he is the man to take them on.
Minster Varadkar came in for criticism following the launch of his policy document after he said he wanted to represent “people who get up early in the morning” – and he used his speech this evening to try and clarify those comments.
“When I talk about people who get up early in the morning let me tell you what I mean,” he said. “I am talking about people who work in the public and private sector; people who work for themselves.”
“I am also talking about carers, who get up early in the morning to look after loved ones.
“Parents who get up early in the morning to get their kids ready for school and people who volunteer for their communities.
“Use any terms you like, middle Ireland, the coping class, the squeezed middle – but they should be our priority, because if they are not our priority, they won’t be anyone else’s.”
He finished by pledging to “give Fine Gael definition” claiming a vote for him would offer, “something to believe in; something to vote for and success at the ballot box.”
Minister Coveney’s speech was markedly more impassioned than his rivals, telling the audience that the party is facing a decision about the “future we want to build for our country and our children.”
He said he wants to lead a party that “represents everybody in this country” adding that politics has become “splintered in Ireland” with no party commanding more than 30% support.
He said the trials the country has faced over the last decade have led society to lose faith in politics adding “each political party is targeting different segments of Irish society - which is actually driving them apart not putting them together.”
“I am in politics to bring people together; to unify communities not divide,” he said. “Of course we have to represent people who get up early in the morning - they are the people that pay for everything with their taxes.”
“But who is asking the question, why can’t some people get up in the morning?
“Why aren’t they motivated? Why are they in a jobless household and how does our party break that cycle and help that person get up in the morning, to find a job, to make something of themselves and contribute to a stronger, bigger society.”
Targeting his rival’s comments on opposition parties he insisted, “this is not about what other parties do.”
“The way I believe this party needs to go forward is we decide for ourselves what we want,” he said. “Forget about Fianna Fáil.”
“We need to become the best and most sincere and most energised, with the biggest ideas to galvanise people behind our message - and that message has to be about representing everybody.
“It has to be about ensuring that we represent the man in the sleeping bag tonight on Grafton Street as well as the man who is creating 1,000 jobs tomorrow.
“That man in the sleeping bag may never vote for us, but do you not think we have a responsibility to help him?”
He said Fine Gael needs to “represent everybody, rich and poor, rural and urban, disadvantaged and successful or talented.”
“We need to celebrate success but reach out a helping hand to the vulnerable, to bring them in to a stronger society where they can contribute and if we do that, not only will our party get stronger but believe you me this country will be a better place.”
The floor was then opened up to questions from party members on a range of issues.
There were some lighter moments in the debate as well - including about who might end up running the department of health:
"I feel that I have unfinished business quite frankly in the Department of Heath and if I have the privilege and honour of becoming party leader and Taoiseach, I am going to get interessted and get involved in health care, because I think that is what is required," said Minister Vardakar.
In response Minster Coveney quipped, "if I have the privilege of being Taoiseach, I will remember that Leo has unfinished business in health."
Both leadership candidates have already outlined their main policy objectives should they be chosen for the leadership.
Minister Coveney's policy document calls for a gradual reduction in the universal social charge (USC) – while tax bands are raised to ensure less people are paying tax at the higher rate.
His plan also includes a call to establish an anti-corruption and transparency commission - which would have the powers of a high court judge and would investigate whistleblowing and alleged corruption .
The plan also includes developing 'green' cities, regional development, and developing a post-Brexit economy.
Minister Varadkar's plans include a proposal to merge PRSI and the USC into a single payment “with new, wider and better benefits.”
It includes a commitment to reduce rates of consistent poverty to below what they were before the recession, and support families by "extending parental leave, making childcare more affordable and making free education for children more of a reality."
Minister Varadkar is pledging full employment by 2019 and has promised to substantially increase capital spending, with a ten year National Development Plan.
He is advocating for a ban on strikes by public servants in essential public and security services - where a legally binding Labour Court determination has already been made.
Questions for the candidates can be submitted through the Fine Gael Members’ Hub.
Almost 21,000 eligible fine Gael party members will cast their votes on the leadership at 26 polling stations nationwide between Monday 29th May and Thursday 1st June.
The Parliamentary Party will vote at Leinster House Dublin on Friday, 2 June from 8am to noon.