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Ireland bets on quiet man to cure financial ills

Enda Kenny set to become Taoiseach as Irish opt for solidity over charisma

Four years ago a particularly blunt radio broadcaster described Enda Kenny as anaemic, insipid and as charismatic as boiled potatoes "left in the fridge for about four days". In his characteristically mild manner, Mr Kenny responded: "I wouldn't say I have buckets of charisma to dish around." Many in Ireland, including senior party colleagues, agree that he has always had a charisma deficit.

Yet yesterday it quickly became clear, as counting proceeded in the Irish general election, that he will become the next Taoiseach, sweeping into power with a hugely increased vote for his Fine Gael party.

He has been no overnight success, with 35 years in the Dail behind him, and with many voters still wondering whether he has the required qualities to pull Ireland out of its deep financial mess.

The same goes for his senior colleagues, since many of them openly said so during an attempt to oust him last June: in fact a majority of his front bench came out against him. "We've been getting it on the doorsteps, getting it in the polls," his then tourism spokeswoman, Olivia Mitchell, declared. "People just don't have confidence in him."

But Mr Kenny faced down that challenge and has just convinced enough people on the doorsteps that he is what the Irish call the dog for the long road. Now he faces a far greater challenge, that of turning the tide in a country which is both financially and psychologically depressed.

The electoral arithmetic and the mood of the country together dictate that he must form a coalition with the Irish Labour Party, with himself as Taoiseach and Labour's leader, Eamon Gilmore, as his deputy.

In the campaign they were rivals for votes but now, in the Irish way, they will get down to the horse-trading that generally lasts for weeks before producing a coalition.

This election is producing a new government, but it will take years to overcome the economic difficulties. And it will not put an end to the spectacle of tearful farewells in airport departure lounges, as parents hug children who are moving thousands of miles away.

The sadness of saying goodbye is accompanied by a sense of shame that modern Ireland has proved unable to run its own affairs. Having once excited envy and admiration, it now attracts sympathy and even pity. Previous waves of emigration were largely made up of the working class, but today many highly educated young people are going in a brain drain that will make eventual recovery all the more difficult.

According to Martin Murphy, head of Hewlett-Packard in Ireland: "We have invested hundreds of millions of euros educating these graduates, but we will lose thousands of them to Australia, New Zealand and Canada."

A mother whose son has just departed for Sydney put it in more personal terms, saying: "It's every parent's nightmare." It is a new Irish diaspora, a vote of no confidence in the old country, an act of desperation.

The international recession played its part in ruining the economy, but it was obvious during the counting yesterday that Ireland as a nation puts nearly all the blame on Fianna Fail, the dominant party for many decades.

It was once the colossus of Irish politics, but counts all over the country confirmed that it has been reduced to a pathetic and powerless rump, with prominent figures facing unceremonious ejection. The former minister Noel Dempsey conceded early on: "It's looking pretty grim."

His colleague Conor Lenihan later added that there had been an "avalanche" against Fianna Fail as Fine Gael and Labour took 10 of the first seats filled. The party looked destined to take no more than 25 seats in all, with the deputy prime minister, Mary Coughlan, facing defeat.

There is little sympathy for it as the figures show that well over 80 per cent of voters blame the country's troubles on a party that fuelled a crazy property boom. The anti-Fianna Fail narrative is straightforward: it helped its cronies – builders, bankers and developers – make vast amounts of money, failed to regulate the banks, the banks went bust and the country went bust too.

Europe goes along with this, saying Ireland's problems "were created by the irresponsible financial behaviour of some Irish institutions and by the lack of supervision in the Irish market". In Ireland it is the fervent wish of many to see bankers behind bars.

Until recent times Fianna Fail had a reputation for financial cleverness, or at least cunning. It was regarded as a party that would cut corners, with some figures making a lot of money for themselves, but it generally seemed able to handle the national finances. Now its former prime ministers Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen are in political disgrace and many big players have retired.

Although some weeks ago the grumpy Mr Cowen was hurriedly replaced as leader by a more personable Micheal Martin, the move brought no bounce. In this poll the dominant sentiment was ABFF – Anyone But Fianna Fail. As its one-time supporters switched to Fine Gael, Labour, various independents and Sinn Fein, its support collapsed from 41 per cent to 14 per cent.

Sinn Fein made gains on its previous total of five Dail seats but remains outside the mainstream. Its support grew because most of its votes come from the disaffected, in particular young, unemployed males. There are plenty of those. Its radical financial stance, "burn the bonds", and its dark republican past mean it is far too anti-establishment for the major parties, who all reject any idea of including it in any coalition.

But, though small, it will now be one of the major opposition parties and, with Gerry Adams switching from north to south, it aims to make a real impact in the Dail. Yesterday he performed unexpectedly strongly in his new southern seat.

The most urgent task for the new administration, and the desire of most voters, is to end the sense that the economy is in freefall. It will be a new government but not a new dawn, for hard times lie ahead. In the words of Michael Noonan, a Fine Gael economic heavyweight: "It's going to be dreadful."

One of the main reasons for the party's advance was its team effort, making much use of figures such as Mr Noonan instead of trying to project Mr Kenny as a film star. He may lack charisma but he does not lack self-belief and was quite willing to share the limelight. Being sometimes a bit hazy on the finer financial details, he often left such questions to his more economically literate colleagues.

The effectiveness of this approach was demonstrated in an exit poll conducted by state broadcaster RTE. In the last election 22 per cent of voters gave the identity of the Taoiseach as the main factor in how they voted. This week that figure fell to just 7 per cent.

Fine Gael, in other words, played down the cult of personality. It also played down any suggestion it had instant solutions to the economic problems, and did not seek to disguise the fact that years of pain lie ahead.

In doing this it had the advantage of its own long-established reputation as a centre-right party of restraint, responsibility and rectitude. Since these were the qualities sought by voters, it provided a ready-made alternative to the old regime.

Between them in the Dail, Fine Gael and Labour have much of the available experience and expertise. They will be expected to make a steady and methodical start on the long, difficult road back towards national solvency and national pride. Mr Kenny's job will be to act as chairman of the board in the effort to build a more stable economy that will eventually persuade the young to leave Boston and Brisbane and come home again.