Great achievement for Kenny, but little will change
The election outcome is quite an achievement for Enda Kenny, writes Vincent Browne.
Of course, Fine Gael was assisted generously by Fianna Fáil's self-destruction. The scale of the Fine Gael achievement now is magnified by Michael Noonan's self-destruction of 2002. Fine Gael has also been assisted ably by the infantile conceit of the 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' ruse. But even more so by the decrepitude of the Left.
But all that aside Enda's achievement is considerable.
It was he who rebuilt the party from the ashes of the 2002 debacle. It was he who made the party cohesive for almost all of the nearly nine years since then, the one exception being the leadership heave of last July which, expeditiously, he blew away.
He was the leader of the party that gave serious effort to policy formation, even though that was not his metier and even though much of that policy has alarming implications for many. It was he who brought together the best election strategy team Fine Gael has ever deployed. He was widely expected to implode during the election campaign and he certainly didn't implode. He has kept a steady course and it has paid off.
Shortly after his election as leader of Fine Gael in 2002, I wrote in a column that Fine Gael had been given the last rites and soon the angels would be leading it into paradise, the new and everlasting Jerusalem.
I met Enda on the street in Merrion Square after the 2007 election, which saw his revival of the party from the door of death in which he had found it after the 2002 election. He quoted my prayer of five years previously for the dying Fine Gael. I was wrong then and, no doubt, he would claim I have been wrong all along about him.
All of which might signal he can be a success as Taoiseach, in spite of obvious liabilities in grappling with the detail of policy issues and conveying a sense of mastery and purpose.
Many have questioned how he is likely to fare at the European heads-of-government meeting in a month's time, from which advisers and ministers are excluded. He will probably do fine, for the ground work will have been done by others beforehand and the assumption that all 27 heads-of-government are all policy experts is nowhere near the truth.
It is also fair to acknowledge that Enda seems to have grown in the nine years since he became leader of Fine Gael, having grown hardly at all in the 27 years before that, from the time he was first elected to the Dáil in 1975.
He was almost anonymous throughout those 27 years, even during his two and a bit years as Minister for Tourism and Trade. So anonymous that Michael Noonan did not appoint him even as a junior spokesperson when he, Michael Noonan, became leader of Fine Gael in 2001.
Nobody would have suspected from that track record that he would lead Fine Gael to the triumph we witnessed on Saturday night. He has learnt about leadership in the nine years since 2002. He has learnt how to handle formal set-pieces and can survive most confrontations, as the leaders' debates showed.
But whether he has the steel, the nerve, the competence and the endurance to survive what is ahead is another matter. That is not a criticism of Enda, for the same would be said of anybody who became Taoiseach in our present predicament.
There are the immediate issues of the banking and fiscal crises, bound up with our massive debt. Enda's visit to Angela Merkel during the campaign may have been a mistake for it may have risen expectations of his leverage with her on the banking losses, expectations that cannot be met.
There is a determination within the EU Commission, in the ECB and among the leading European powers (ie. Germany and France) that, at least for now, there can be no restructuring of the sovereign and bank debts. There may be a little leeway on interest payments, but no deviation from the thrust of the deal finalised on 28 November last. Olli Rehn made this clear in Brussels on Thursday.
The bit in the Fine Gael manifesto about the junior bondholders is just plain strutting. It reads:
"Fine Gael in government will force certain classes of bond-holders to share in the cost of recapitalising troubled financial institutions. This will be done unilaterally for most junior bondholders (owners of preference shares, subordinated debt and similar instruments) but could be extended – as part of a Europe wide framework - for senior debt".
This will not happen. And Fine Gael in government, like Fianna Fail in government did a few weeks ago, will pay hundreds of millions even to bondholders not covered by the bank guarantee, because the ECB will instruct them to do so.
There will be worse, much worse. There is nothing now of the Just Society impulse that emerged briefly in Fine Gael in the mid 1960s. There used to be a pretence that Fine Gael was still interested in social justice when Garret was leader, but even the pretence is gone now.