Northern Ireland

Enda an era - 100 days of the new Irish government

Enda Kenny

It was 2am at the Burlington hotel in Dublin and Enda Kenny's supporters were celebrating their election victory.

The noise-level was rising. Thirsts were being quenched. And a sing-song was brewing.

After a frenetic four-week campaign, Fine Gael election workers were letting off some steam.

There was no sign of the man of the moment, but one supporter had a life-size cardboard cut-out of Enda Kenny and leaned it carefully against the hotel bar.

In many ways, it encapsulated the cynical view of Enda Kenny at the time - lifeless, one-dimensional and wooden.

As leader of the Opposition in the Irish parliament since 2002, he was the archetypal safe pair of hands. Competent, yes. Experienced, yes. Inspirational, no.

Doubts about his leadership qualities persisted. The standing joke in political circles was that he was not even the best leader in his own party, never mind the country.

And with Ireland in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history, the last thing it needed was a ditherer at the top.

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However, those who know Enda Kenny best were always convinced he would thrive being Taoiseach.

Amid the hotel hullabaloo, one supporter gently wagged his finger at me and said: "Watch him grow into the job. Just you watch him."

Fast forward 100 days, and there is little doubt that Enda Kenny looks prime ministerial. The opinion polls suggest Fine Gael is even more popular now than at the time of the election.

The successful visit by the Queen to Ireland helped, as did the trip by US President Barack Obama.

The visits provided an opportunity for the new Taoiseach to step onto the world stage, and he did not put a foot wrong.

Savaged

Yet, it would be wrong to put Enda Kenny's early success down to a series of fortunate events.

In the Irish parliament, at set-piece events and in his dealings with the media, he has shown a confidence and an authority that many previously doubted he possessed.

During his decade in opposition, some of his lacklustre performances brought to mind the criticism once levelled in Britain at the Tory politician Geoffrey Howe - being attacked by him was "like being savaged by a dead sheep".

Perhaps, mild-mannered Kenny is suited more to government than opposition, to being positive rather than negative.

Since he took over in March, he has lifted the mood of the country.

Now comes the hard bit - lifting the Irish economy.

The truth is that nothing has radically changed in the past 100 days. Indeed, unemployment has gone up, and is now dangerously close to 15%.

He promised to re-negotiate Ireland's bail-out, but there is still no sign of a reduced interest-rate on the 67.5bn euros loan.

Indeed, a large slice of the money has already been drawn down, which means that even if a better rate is negotiated, it will be on a reduced lump sum.

Reputation

Then there is the whole question of the next budget. By the end of the year, Fine Gael and its coalition partners in the Labour Party, will have to agree on a series of cost-cutting measures.

Budgets tend to act as a political stress test, especially when a centre-right low-tax party is in power with a centre-left high-spending party.

Stand by for an eventful autumn in Dublin political circles.

Enda Kenny said recently that every time he watches Riverdance, he cries. He may also do the same every time he looks at the books in the Department of Finance.

However, what he has managed to do is begin the process of restoring Ireland's economic reputation abroad.

He managed to convince Barack Obama that the country would make a full economic recovery.

"Your best days are still ahead," the President told a 50,000-strong crowd in Dublin last month.

"If anybody ever tells you that your problems are too big, or your challenges are too great... just respond with a simple creed: Is feidir linn."

That is the Irish translation of Obama's catch phrase - yes, we can.

Watching at the side of the Dublin stage was Enda Kenny. He was smiling and applauding, and the crowd smiled and applauded with him.

The cardboard cut-out image is long gone.

He has the style.

All he needs now is the substance.

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