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Saturday 10 December 2016

Brian Lenihan: A legacy defined by the financial crash

Published 10/06/2011 | 12:22

Brian Lenihan's legacy will be forever seen in the context of the slide from financial golden boy to the pauper with the begging bowl.

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The politician served as finance minister as the economy imploded, ultimately forcing the debt-ridden recourse to a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and European allies.

He, along with his colleagues in Fianna Fail in power for the Celtic Tiger boom since 1997, were summarily blamed for handing away the state's hard-won economic sovereignty.

Accusations were levelled that the bailout agreed by Mr Lenihan was shackling the nation to years of debt and targeting the least well off by slashing the minimum wage and social welfare to protect the gambling international bank lenders.

Despite this, he managed to hold onto his Dail seat after Fianna Fail party suffered a battering at the polls in February, losing more than 50 of its TDs.

In a BBC interview after Fianna Fail's electoral defeat, the west Dublin TD spoke of his feelings on having to open the state's books to the IMF and ECB in November last year.

"I have a very vivid memory of going to Brussels on the final Monday and being on my own at the airport and looking at the snow gradually thawing and thinking to myself: this is terrible," he said.

"No Irish minister has ever had to do this before.

"I had fought for two and a half years to avoid this conclusion. I believed I had fought the good fight and taken every measure possible to delay such an eventuality and now hell was at the gates."

Despite being weighed down by the battle against Ireland's financial ruin, he fought pancreatic cancer while balancing the strains of office in the most turbulent economic times.

His dedication to his role was never questioned despite his illness, and although appearing to lose weight and cutting back on some media and public engagements, he repeatedly addressed the Dail.

He earned the respect of many by being seen as more communicative than then-taoiseach Brian Cowen, although both were roundly criticised for the perceived lack of openness around the bailout talks.

Regarded as a man of ambition, it was speculated he had been mounting a coup against Mr Cowen more than a year before the resignation of the former taoiseach, despite being regarded as a close ally.

He also bid for the leadership of the beleaguered Fianna Fail after Mr Cowen stepped down but lost out to the fitter former foreign affairs minister Micheal Martin.

Over three months in opposition Mr Lenihan gave credence to speculation that the relationship between himself and Mr Cowen was growing frosty in the final months of power, criticising Mr Cowen's communication skills.

The west Dublin TD was born on May 21 1959 into a family steeped in politics.

His late father Brian Senior was a senior Cabinet minister for more than 25 years, while his aunt, Mary O'Rourke was also a veteran Fianna Fail member and his brother Conor a minister until both lost their seats in the February election. His grandfather was Patrick Lenihan, Dail deputy from 1965 to 1970.

The young Brian shone academically and studied law at Trinity College in central Dublin, before going on to Cambridge and rising to become a trained barrister.

But politics was in his blood, and it was in the political court that he honed his skills when he entered Dail Eireann in 1996 after the by-election sparked by the death of his father.

He went on to serve in three Government portfolios - children's minister in 2002, justice in 2007 and finance in 2008.

His years in the finance brief overshadowed his previous roles as he was thrust into the international spotlight for unveiling three budgets in 18 months in a desperate attempt to plug the hole in the state's finances.

When took control of the brief he infamously told an audience of construction chiefs that he had the misfortune to be handed the poisoned chalice as the economy nosedived.

In one of his hairshirt budget speeches he notoriously claimed the country had turned the corner only for the scale of losses in Irish banks to spiral.

He oversaw the virtual nationalisation of the entire Irish banking system after controversially guaranteeing all deposits in the state's six banks in September 2008 - a decision which has repeatedly come back to haunt him.

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