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Andrew Lynch: Army of bruisers could lead Kenny to his own Waterloo

Enda Kenny obviously has a keen sense of history.

He launched his new front bench in the Merrion Hotel's Wellington Room, named after a general who survived a desperately close battle before becoming prime minister.

After seeing off his own Napoleons, the Fine Gael leader has done his best to paper over the cracks -- but he still has a massive job to convince the public that this revamped team is really the next cabinet in waiting.

The official photograph says it all.

While the electorate is becoming younger and more urbanised, the new FG line-up is overwhelmingly male, rural and middle-aged.

The real winner may well turn out to be Eamon Gilmore, who will see little here to threaten Labour's dominance in Dublin, where the next general election will be won and lost.

Given that almost half of his colleagues tried to topple him, Kenny's first priority was obviously to shore up his own position.

He has achieved this by splitting the rebels, inviting around half to return and leaving the others out in the cold. With a chastened Richard Bruton back in the fold, there is no obvious focal point for another heave.

But while Kenny felt obliged to drop prominent Dublin TDs such as Brian Hayes and Olivia Mitchell, he had no obvious replacements.

Many of the new faces have no national profile, suggesting they're on the back benches for a good reason.

Women voters will note that out of the 21, only three are female -- two TDs chosen to shadow junior ministers and a senator stuck in a parliament her leader promises to abolish.

One front-bench position matters more than all the rest put together.

That's why Michael Noonan's return as finance spokesman is a huge gamble, whose success or failure could well determine Kenny's fate.

Nobody can dispute the Limerick man's economic expertise and debating skills -- but having led the party to its worst-ever election result in 2002, he's also the ultimate symbol of past failures.

Noonan made his reputation as a political bruiser, whose aggressive style and bizarre language were so brilliantly parodied by the late Dermot Morgan on Scrap Saturday.

A few weeks ago the public saw a more sensitive side as he broke down in tears during an interview about his wife's battle with Alzheimer's disease.

So where does Kenny stand now? He has surrounded himself with tough nuts such as Noonan, new deputy leader James Reilly and director of elections Phil Hogan. This should give FG a harder edge in the run-up to the next election, but it also risks turning off female voters with an overdose of macho negativity.

Behind the forced smiles in the Wellington Room, the old problems remain. Kenny struggles when asked about the economy, while he's just done yet another U-turn on Sinn Fein by saying that the IRA army council is no longer in business.

Some of FG's key policy initiatives, such as their New Era document on jobs and plans for universal health insurance, are simply not getting across to the public.

The Duke of Wellington called his battle with Napoleon "a damn close-run thing". If Kenny's new army isn't a clear improvement, he could still end up facing his own Waterloo.


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