Irish Prime Minister Kenny re-elected after 70-day deadlock

(Ralf Peter Reimann / CC BY-SA 2.0)

DUBLIN (AP) – Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny won narrow re-election Friday on his fourth try, ending 70 days of deadlock and forging a novel but fragile minority government containing independent voices.

Kenny received 59 votes, with 49 against, in the 158-member parliament – by far the fewest ever received for a winning premier in Ireland, a nation used to coalition governments with stable majorities. Speculation mounted on how long this government might survive.

In his victory speech, Kenny appealed to opposition lawmakers to “work in partnership together to build a better Ireland. It will be a real test of our democracy, of our character and indeed of this house – a test I am convinced we will pass.”

Kenny had governed Ireland for the past five years atop a two-party government sporting the strongest majority in Irish history. But voters were angered by several years of austerity that underpinned Ireland’s 2013 exit from an international bailout and shifted support to socialist protest parties and maverick independents in the Feb. 26 election.

Kenny’s centrist Fine Gael party, though weakened, retained its top position in parliament. But its coalition ally in the left-wing Labour Party was decimated, leaving Kenny without a viable majority partner.

Now, Fine Gael will stay in government only with external support from its age-old enemy, Fianna Fail.

Those parties have never shared power since Ireland’s 1920s independence from Britain, when the two took opposite sides in a fratricidal civil war. Fianna Fail rebuffed Kenny’s weeks-long effort to form a majority coalition.

Friday’s breakthrough became possible once Fianna Fail accepted a compromise plan to support legislative votes from outside government ranks on a case-by-case basis through late 2018.

Kenny had lost three previous leadership votes as Fianna Fail’s 44 lawmakers blocked his nomination. This time they abstained, opening the door for Kenny to win a majority of votes cast. Kenny received 50 from his own party and nine from independents, three of whom received Cabinet seats as part of the bargain, another Irish first.

Friday’s scheduled “high noon” vote was delayed amid tense behind-the-scenes haggling with independents, several of whom made demands at sharp odds with Fine Gael’s pro-business, pro-EU policies. Failure to persuade enough independents to back Kenny would have forced him to call Ireland’s first early election since 1989.

Labour’s seven surviving lawmakers voted against Kenny. Labour leader Joan Burton, who until Friday was Ireland’s deputy prime minister, denounced Kenny’s deal with Fianna Fail as “a deeply flawed arrangement.”

Kenny later unveiled a new-look 15-member Cabinet that included promotions for four women. Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald gained the post of deputy premier. An independent, American-born gay rights activist Katherine Zappone, became minister for children.

A particularly outspoken independent, financial commentator Shane Ross, became minister of transportation – a red-hot topic in traffic-choked Dublin. Ross has lambasted successive governments’ handling of the 2008 debt crisis that propelled Ireland to the brink of bankruptcy.

Ross’ forecasts aren’t always correct. In March, as coalition talks foundered, Ross described Kenny as “a political corpse.”

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