Kenny elected Ireland's premier, faces debt crisis

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 09, 2011 21:51 hrs

Ireland's new parliament elected soft-spoken Enda Kenny prime minister Wednesday to lead a coalition government that faces immediate pressure to revive the nation's debt-crippled economy.

Kenny, 59, vowed to solve a bank-bailout crisis that has overwhelmed Ireland's finances and required an emergency rescue by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. He said terms of the EU-IMF loans must be renegotiated to make them more affordable for Ireland and enable the country's recovery from record deficits and double-digit unemployment.

Kenny was elected prime minister unopposed with 117 of the parliament's 166 lawmakers voting "yes" to his candidacy. Just 27 opposed him. It was the first time in Irish history that a prime minister faced no rival candidate.

Kenny said his government faced "a task of rescuing our economy, of resuscitating our reputation and of restoring our society."

He pledged never to sugarcoat the brutal facts of Ireland's finances. But he called his rise to power "the first day of a journey to a better future. That future ... when Ireland can again take charge of its own destiny."

Several hundred supporters from Kenny's remote western power base of County Mayo cheered as he walked outside parliament. Kenny, a former schoolteacher, is Ireland's longest-serving lawmaker as Mayo's representative since 1975.

He then traveled by government motorcade to receive his seal of office from Ireland's ceremonial head of state, President Mary McAleese.

Later, Kenny unveiled a Cabinet composed of 10 lawmakers from his own conservative Fine Gael party and five from his government partners, the left-wing Labour Party.

Fine Gael deputy leader Michael Noonan becomes finance minister, the key figure in shaping Ireland's next round of budget cuts, tax hikes and bank bailouts. As part of the EU-IMF loan pact, Ireland is supposed to slash euro15 billion ($21 billion) from its deficit spending over the next four years, a goal that will involve cutting the state payroll.

But in a reflection of Kenny's reliance on Labour backing, he created a new government department that will give Labour control of key duties previously reserved for Noonan's job. As the new minister for public sector reform, Labour's Brendan Howlin will oversee how the budget cuts affect the pay, numbers and conditions of state employees — some 25,000 of whom the new government is committed to cut from the payroll by 2014.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore became both Ireland's deputy prime minister and its top diplomat as minister of foreign affairs and trade. Previous governments had split the foreign and trade roles between different ministers.

Fine Gael won 76 seats and Labour 37 in Ireland's Feb. 25 election — both record highs. Together they hold the biggest parliamentary majority, 113, of any Irish government. A 1992-94 government held the previous record of 101.

Fine Gael and Labour have governed Ireland together in six previous coalitions, most recently in 1995-97, when Ireland's now-dead Celtic Tiger economy first began to roar.

This time, both parties surged to victory on a wave of public anger against the Fianna Fail government of former Prime Minister Brian Cowen, who oversaw the ill-fated bailout of five Dublin banks that faced insolvency when Ireland's property boom collapsed in 2008.

The ongoing struggle to prop up those banks is expected to cost taxpayers more than euro50 billion ($70 billion). In November, it forced a reluctant Cowen to negotiate an EU-IMF credit line that could total euro67.5 billion ($93 billion).

Fianna Fail, a center-ground party that had dominated Irish politics since 1932, returned to parliament with just 20 seats, by far its fewest ever. Cowen declined to run again, but his brother Barry won his seat in the rural midlands district of Laois-Offaly.

Fianna Fail's weakness was underscored when the new leader, Micheal Martin, announced that his party would offer no nominee for taoiseach — the official Gaelic title for Ireland's prime minister — and accepted Kenny was the only logical candidate.

"I am an Irish republican. This means I want our country to do well, no matter who is in charge," Martin said to Kenny across the debating chamber. "I wish him well and I sincerely hope that he will be successful as taoiseach."

Fianna Fail finds itself outnumbered even on the opposition benches by 33 socialists, Irish nationalists and maverick independents, whose antiestablishment messages resonated with voters on the campaign trail.

The Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party has 14 seats, and is led in the Dublin chamber for the first time by party leader Gerry Adams — whose very voice was banned from Irish airwaves until the IRA cease-fire of 1994. The reputed Irish Republican Army veteran won a seat in a border district after a career rooted in Catholic west Belfast in the British territory of Northern Ireland.

The parliament also has five Marxist lawmakers organized in a grouping called United Left Alliance. Their leader, Joe Higgins, accused the new government of seeking to force the Irish people to ingest "the poisonous cocktail of austerity, concocted by the witch doctors in Brussels and Frankfurt."

The 14 independents include Mick Wallace, a property kingpin who owns no suit and instead wore his trademark open-necked pink shirt, and Luke "Ming" Flanagan, a ponytailed small-town mayor who underscored his rebel status by admitting he grows and smokes marijuana — illegal in Ireland — and daring authorities to take action.

Flanagan pleaded with Kenny to permit outside economic experts to help the government shift the burden of the bank bailout away from taxpayers, "otherwise we're sentencing the people of this country to a life of hell."



Ireland's parliament,

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