WHEN George W Bush became US president, he famously boasted: "They misunderestimated me!" Enda Kenny may have a slightly better grasp of the English language, but his sentiments today are probably very similar.
Whatever the final tally of seats, it is now absolutely certain that he will be elected Taoiseach when the Dail resumes on March 9 – and after all the personal abuse he’s taken over the years, this victory must taste very sweet.
Politics is a funny old game. At the count in the 2002 General Election, Kenny was so convinced he’d lost his seat that he wrote a speech announcing his retirement. Less than a decade later, he is set to become Taoiseach with the most thumping electoral landslide ever achieved by any Fine Gael leader.
How did Enda do it? What gave him the strength to recover just eight months after his deputy leader and half his front bench tried to get rid of him? And at a time of crisis, why has the country elected a Taoiseach who is notorious for his weak grasp of economic issues?
The short answer is that Enda Kenny is the most underestimated man in Irish politics. Despite a constant barrage of criticism about everything from his hairstyle to his accent, he has managed to outlast all of his more charismatic rivals.
Behind the wooden image, there is a core of inner steel – and if he can do for the country what he’s done for Fine Gael, Ireland will be in safe hands. Kenny’s campaign was not flawless by any means. When the chips were really down, however, he always rose to the occasion. He came through the RTE and TG4 debates without making any major errors and also performed well on the stump, showing an empathy with ordinary people that highlighted his basic decency. So, what kind of Taoiseach will he make? Becoming leader of the country can do strange things to a politician. In Bertie Ahern’s case, the extra authority and selfconfidence turned him into a celebrity. For Brian Cowen, the increased attention seemed to bring out all of his least attractive qualities.
With Enda, it could go either way. He has already given a couple of hostages to fortune by claiming he will lead “the best government” ever and promising not to stand for a second term if he doesn’t deliver his famous fivepoint plan.
Just to add to the pressure, his new Cabinet will contain quite a few ministers who are convinced they could do a much better job themselves. As a man who loves to climb mountains in his spare time, Kenny knows that getting to the summit is only half the battle. Over the next few weeks, he will find out just how tough it can be at the top. Today, however, he has pulled off a stunning victory – and no matter how you voted, we should all wish him well.