Enda Kenny is due to attend the Sept. 20 opening of the new premises of Arvato Finance, a German-owned billing and payment-services company, in Dublin's docklands, but has delayed his convoy to take a call. Conversations with Ireland's Prime Minister are often pleasantly discursive; if words were money, Kenny could have easily cleared the national debt since coming to power in February 2011. And so, at the appointed hour, he finds himself gridlocked in traffic, facing the skeleton of a building that was to have housed the headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank, the country's third largest lender until red ink overwhelmed the institution in 2009 and pushed the building's developer into liquidation. Arvato's good news is small beer by comparison; the expansion of its Irish subsidiary is expected to create just 100 additional jobs. These days, though, Kenny leads cheers for even the smallest of beers.
When Kenny finally reaches Arvato, he springs from the car and soon he's glad-handing for Ireland, enjoying the craic, the chat. Mayo, the Gaelic football team he supports, hopes to clinch the All-Ireland title on Sept. 24 against Donegal. Ahead of the game, Kenny will attend a papal audience in Rome as part of an international gathering of center-right politicians. "I intend to ask the Pope for divine intervention," he says, grinning.
The joke backfires a few days later when Mayo goes on to lose, gallantly. But Ireland's irrepressible Premier is keeping his sights set on a far bigger miracle: saving the country's economy. Ireland's intertwined bank failures and property bust of 2008 09 proved at least as devastating as the parallel crisis now engulfing Spain. In November 2010, Ireland was forced to beg for a bailout from the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund. The country could not afford to keep its debt-burdened banks afloat or finance its commitments by raising capital in international bond markets. Its problems infected the euro zone, and the euro zone's sickness spread across the globe. At home, businesses bankrupted; main streets shuttered. For every high-profile collapse, there were thousands of smaller calamities: families left without breadwinners, people left without hope.
Kenny aims to return his nation to health through a program of taxes and tax hikes, cost cutting and public-sector restructuring. As these efforts begin to bear fruit, the little republic with a population of just 4.6 million is proving, once again, that size isn't everything. Its poets and musicians have entranced global audiences; now its policy statements are studied like great literature. The second member of the European single currency, after Greece, to take a bailout, Ireland could be the first to provide a model for tackling the euro zone's wider blight
The granters of the bailout have lauded Ireland's progress. "Exemplary," said IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. European Central Bank president Mario Draghi described Kenny's government as "a model of compliance with the macroeconomic adjustment program."
Kenny bats away the praise. "It's not just about fulfilling a program; it is about creating a different space for the country, for the people, for the brand we carry." He's right to be cautious. In Greece and Spain, belt-tightening has triggered eruptions of public anger. Nor is Ireland anywhere near home and dry. The government will unveil the 2013 budget in December and needs to find more and deeper cuts; growth is slowing. Yet for now, a majority of the Irish population, from householders stuck with properties worth a fraction of the mortgages they can't afford to public-sector workers on shrunken salaries and billowing hours, seems prepared to share in Ireland's painful rebirth.
As Premiers elsewhere seek to rally their rebellious citizens or burnish tarnished investor confidence, some of them are seeking advice from Kenny. They wonder what it is that Kenny is doing better, whether lessons learned in Ireland apply to their own countries. The Irish example raises other questions too, about national leadership in a crisis that pays no respect to borders. One person who should have at least some of the answers is Kenny himself.