Ireland Gets a New Prime Minister: With New Government, EU Could Become Next Battleground

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Ireland's future prime ministerhas a tough job ahead of him: Voters who backed Enda Kenny expect him to take a tough line and renegotiate the terms of the country's EU bailout. Some are hoping that his ties with German Chancellor Angela Merkel will lend a helping hand.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny (right) is set to become the country's next prime minister. Zoom
AP

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny (right) is set to become the country's next prime minister.

The seating order is already set at a meeting of conservative Christian Democrats from across Europe. "K" for Kenny gets to sit right next to "M" for Merkel -- and that has been the tradition for some years. In Ireland right now, this bit of serendipity is being celebrated as a stroke of luck for the country's new prime minister.

The proximity to the German chancellor, or so the Irish media is interpreting it, could aid Enda Kenny's plan to renegotiate the European Union's bailout package for Ireland. The Irish election winner wants to make this his top priority during his first weeks in office.

Kenny's conservative Fine Gael party won Friday's election by a clear margin over the other parties. The final results aren't in yet, but the latest projections suggest his party will have have 76 seats in the 166-seat Dail, the lower house of parliament. Lacking a majority, it is expected that Kenny will enter into a coalition government with the Labour Party, which had the second strongest showing in the polls and will land an estimated 37 seats.

The new prime minister has profited from the recent sense of revolt in the country. The debt crisis has polarized the Irish, a development underscored by voter turnout of 70 percent. Voters were thirsty to punish the previous government coalition, comprised of the conservative Fianna Fail party and the Greens. And that they did: Fianna Fail fell to 17 percent -- its worst election ever, with only 18 seats so far; and the Greens must now fear that they may lose all their seats in parliament.

Pale and Unimposing

In addition to the two major opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, Sinn Fein, the Catholic ultra-nationalists, also made gains. Party boss Gerry Adams, who served in the British House of Commons as a representative for Northern Ireland, will now be taking a seat in parliament in Dublin as the chief of a sizeable parliament group. Sinn Fein increased its number of seats considerably to an estimated 13.

Voter outrage drove Kenny right into the country's highest office. But the development was by no means a given, particularly if you take a look at the politician's career path. Educated as a primary school teacher, the 59-year-old has served longer than anyone else in parliament. For more than 35 years, he has represented the Mayo electoral district in the northwestern part of Ireland. For much of that time, he was a back bencher. That's also part of his nature: He's no showman.

His supporters describe him as reserved and modest. His opponents, including many journalists, have criticized him as being pale and unimposing. To them, it feels like Kenny has been around forever, the political equivalent of old furniture. Kenny comes from a political family -- his father was a member of parliament and a senior ministry official, but his son had to wait a long time before rising to the highest echelons of politics.

In the last government coalition between Fine Gael and Labour between 1994 and 1997, Kenny served as tourism minister. After his election as party chief in 2002, he was opposition leader. Now he will become Ireland's next leader. However, it wasn't brilliance that brought him so far -- it was patience and persistence. The Irish Times noted that his strong sense of discipline goes back to his early years. He didn't even drink his first beer until he was 28, highly untypical for an Irishman.

Countering the Crisis with a 'Sunny Disposition'

Much of the work now facing Kenny will be thankless. Rarely has an incoming government been handed a country in worse shape. The economy is shrinking, the budget deficit is the highest in Europe, unemployment is at 13 percent and many Irish are seeking better opportunities abroad. Kenny's wife Fionnuala describes her husband as having a "sunny disposition," and he will need it. Ireland could use a hefty dose of optimism to stop itself sliding into despair.

With Fianna Fail now swept aside, the Irish people will now focus their anger on the European Union. The €85 billion ($117 billion) loan agreed to in November was considered by most Irish to be unfair from day one. They want the terms to be renegotiated as quickly as possible.

"Ireland has been unfairly punished by the EU," prominent journalist Bruce Arnold writes in the Irish Independent newspaper. The high interest rate of 5.8 percent is an "impossible burden and clearly unsustainable," he writes. Most economists concur: Sooner or later, they argue, Ireland will buckle under the burden of its interest payments. The new government in Dublin is expected to broach the topic during the next EU summit at the end of March.

Against that backdrop, Kenny is likely to be hoping for a little understanding from his neighbor at the table during the next meeting of European conservatives. Since 2006, the Fine Gael chief has been the vice president of the European People's Party (EPP), the group of European conservatives in Brussels that also includes Merkel's party in Germany, the Christian Democratic Union.

During the election campaign, he visited with Merkel in Berlin in order to make plea for lenience. His next opportunity will be at an EPP meeting at the beginning of March.

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