Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness has declared her support for Simon Coveney as the next party leader.

An estimated 800 people attended the Fine Gael leadership hustings in Ballinasloe, Co Galway. 

Speaking from Ballinasloe, Ms McGuinness said the Minister for Housing had shown particular grit and determination in this campaign, refusing to concede the contest when many believed he would do so.

She said Mr Coveney had displayed a "particular passion for leadership" and had not given up when the going got tough.

She said Fine Gael was better for the open and frank debate about the party's future.

Ms McGuinness said Mr Coveney was best placed to unite and represent all citizens.

Mr Coveney now has the backing of 21 of the party's TDs, Senators and MEPs while 46 of them are supporting Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar.

In his opening address to delegates, Mr Varadkar said he wanted to bring about a new social contract with the Irish people.

He said he had worked hard in several Government departments to deliver infrastructure and improvements for all parts of the country. 

Stressing his rural credentials, he said his experience in Government over the last six years had given him an insight into the issues and concerns of people in the west of Ireland.

He said he would lead the party and lead the country for the benefit of all. Mr Varadkar outlined his policy priorities regarding taxation.

He said he felt it would be unwise to abolish the USC and said his focus would be on tax rates. He said he would oversee a "catch up plan" for parts of Ireland that have been left behind. 

In his remarks, Mr Coveney emphasised his connection with rural Ireland. He outlined his work in the Department of Agriculture and the Marine and said he would "galvanise a positive feeling about the west of Ireland".

He has asked delegates to pick a Taoiseach who would deliver this, saying he was best placed in this regard.

Mr Coveney said he was not just reaching out to the regions. Instead he would drive a re-awakening of the west, south and north-west.

He said other parts of Ireland had yet to achieve their potential but that with radical thinking and positive action, this could happen.

He said he would talk the language of those involved in fishing, agriculture and rural industry because he said he has "lived it".

Mr Coveney finished his address by saying: "When Leo talks about wanting to be a political leader for all of Ireland but not just Dublin, my response is 'that's already me'."

In response, Mr Varadkar said he had been bowled over by his opponent's passion for marine issues, saying if Mr Coveney wished to return as Minister in that Department, then that could be arranged.