Enda Kenny: The man who would be king

By Shane Harrison
BBC Ireland Correspondent

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'Enda Kenny will need all his natural good humour over the coming years'

Enda Kenny, the man most likely to be the Republic of Ireland's next prime minister, was in a good-humoured, confident mood at his last major news conference.

Confident without any trace of arrogance.

The would-be taoiseach or prime minister outlined to reporters from home and abroad what his Fine Gael party would do in its first 100 days in office, if it is elected by the Irish people, as he kept stressing.

The campaign, one of the most unusual in recent history, is now almost over.

And, judging by the polls, it is clear that the public made up their minds a long time ago.

Barring some major unforeseen event, Mr Kenny has more or less sealed the deal with the Republic's voters to become the next taoiseach; the only question is: will he be in coalition with Labour's Eamon Gilmore or can Fine Gael form a single party government - albeit one dependent on the support of like-minded independents?

There was little surprise that, over the last week, Labour intensified its attacks on Fine Gael as it battled for a coalition place only to cosy up again to its would-be partner in government in the last few days, as if to prove to undecided voters it could form a stable administration.

The opinion polls have been remarkably consistent for the last couple of months; Fine Gael is doing well especially, but so also are Labour and Sinn Fein.

Micheal Martin's Fianna Fail and John Gormley's Greens - the outgoing coalition - are performing appallingly - blamed for the over-heated and under-regulated construction boom that brought such havoc on Ireland's economy and banking system.

All of which resulted in the deeply unpopular 85bn euro (£72bn) EU/IMF bail-out loan, which all the parties would like to see changed.

'Bleak outcome'

Mr Martin may have been the best debater in the TV studio set pieces, but it is not going to do his party any good.

Accepting that the comparisons are not exact, as of now, Fianna Fail seems set for the biggest loss of parliamentary seats since the Irish Home Rule party in the 1918 election.

That would be some setback for a party that has been in power for 22 of the last 24 years.

Gerry Adams has been attacked by his opponents for his party's perceived economic illiteracy, but it would be a major shock if he failed to get elected in Louth. Sinn Fein's Dail representation will almost certainly increase from its current 5 seats, some commentators believe they could get as many as 13.

The new government will immediately be confronted with whether or not to put more tax-payer's money into the troubled banks.

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The new government will have limited control over its own financial affairs

At the same time, it will be hoping that an EU summit in March will allow for some eventual relaxation of the terms of the bail-out loan with its average 5.8% interest rate.

If that happens, it will be a European-wide deal and not one specifically for Ireland.

The new government will have limited control over its own financial affairs and it is likely that senior Fine Gael ministers have been saying the next few years will be dreadful, with more spending cuts and tax rises.

It is all a bit reminiscent of Churchill promising the British people nothing but blood, sweat and tears at the start of World War II.

A most unusual election is about to be followed by, for Irish citizens, a very predictable, bleak financial and economic outcome.

Enda Kenny will almost certainly need all his natural good humour over the coming years.