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Has Enda got an Angela of Mercy or Maggie Thatcher II?

ENDA Kenny needs to hold his nerve. The Taoiseach still looks a little dazed from his handbagging by Angela Merkel at last week's EU summit, when the German chancellor appeared to pour cold water on the prospect of a bank debt deal for Ireland.

The confusion of the last 72 hours has not exactly done much for Kenny's credibility -- and he must convince us now that he has a more sophisticated negotiating strategy than just hoping for the best.

Over the weekend, the phone lines between Dublin and Berlin were hopping as Ireland urgently sought clarification of Merkel's remarks. A 30-minute conversation between the two leaders and a Sunday night statement that Ireland is "a special case" has bought the Taoiseach breathing space.

However, the timeframe for a deal remains as vague as ever -- raising serious doubts over our ability to return to the bond markets next year as the government has promised.

Kenny will hope that his meeting with Francois Hollande in Paris today is the next step towards getting Ireland's campaign back on track. The French president may not be a flamboyant table-thumper like his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, but his steely determination to help struggling EU countries could make him a valuable ally.



Priorities

In a landmark interview last week, however, he notably expressed sympathy for Greece, Spain and Portugal -- but gave no indication at all that Ireland was on his list of priorities.

Kenny's basic problem is that he got over-excited by the outcome of last June's summit, which took the crucial step of separating bank debt from sovereign debt. The Taoiseach triumphantly declared this to be "a seismic shift", but the lack of concrete progress since then suggests he was being more than a little naive. Ultimately, the Irish taxpayer will get some kind of refund on the €64bn that has been pumped into our toxic banks-- but there is no excuse for cracking open the champagne until we know exactly how much.

Of course, Merkel's comments have to be seen in the context of her battle for re-election next September. Right now she is still ahead in the polls, but that could all change if the Germans feel they are being asked to cough up for everybody else's mistakes. Our own leader is hardly in a position to preach, since he tells his country that everything is on the right track while pleading poverty behind closed doors in Brussels.

Merkel's statement sounded remarkably like Margaret Thatcher's infamous "Out, out, out" press conference in 1984, another event that made a Fine Gael Taoiseach look foolish in public. That story had a happy ending, since the British realised they had gone too far and the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed a year later. Just like the Northern Ireland peace process, there are bound to be setbacks on the way to any Irish debt deal -- and Kenny just has to keep telling himself that it will all be worth it in the end.

All of this is a depressing reminder of just how reliant we are on the kindness of strangers. When your economic sovereignty is up the spout, the smallest negative comment from a foreign leader can create panic among investors and send consumer confidence through the floor. Kenny has papered over the cracks for now, but too often he looks like a helpless bystander.

Earlier this month, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a timely reminder of the idealism that first inspired this great project. We could do with a bit more of that vision today -- and less of the petty nationalism that allows leaders like Angela Merkel to hold smaller countries to ransom.

As Giovanni Trapattoni could tell you, being thumped by the Germans is not a pleasant experience. Just like Trap, Kenny has been given a fright -- and the Taoiseach must keep a cool head in the crucial weeks ahead if he wants to land the ultimate prize.


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