Brian Lenihan: A man imbued with hope and courage
The former finance minister did not shirk the harsh reality of his job or of his illness, writes Jody Corcoran
Published 23/10/2011 | 08:17
AUTUMN has given way to winter. The signs were evident last week; on Monday morning a sharp wind blew through the tall trees and fulsome hedgegrows of north county Dublin.
On the car radio, Jim Flaherty, the Finance Minister of Canada, in Dublin for a business lunch — he stopped over from a G20 meeting in Paris — was talking the doom-laden talk of Europe still in crisis. In the distance was St David’s, small but distinctive, which serves a Church of Ireland community around Kilsallaghan, a parish in the barony of Castleknock.
It was to here the late Brian Lenihan would come, twice a year, first to celebrate the harvest festival and then at Christmas to join in a carol service. It was also to be his final resting place. A redrawing of a boundary 12 years earlier had, fortuitously he would later say, brought this rich farmland into what was his mainly urban constituency of Dublin Mid-West. And it was here, at St David’s, that the former Attorney General, Paul Gallagher, spoke in a moving eulogy of his great friend: “He was a master of all the talents; he was an inspiration to us all, and he was a great patriot.” The great patriot’s grave is a simple one. A wooden cross reads: “Brian Lenihan, Died 10th June 2011, R.I.P.”
By curious serendipity, Jim Flaherty had 10 minutes earlier invoked the name of the man at whose grave I was now standing. In the cemetery, there are maybe 50 people interred, mainly Protestant, some Catholic. It was to here that Brian Lenihan came last Christmas, a blanket of snow frozen hard on the ground. This was where he wanted to be buried. Within weeks there would be a leadership crisis in Fianna Fail, followed by a General Election, which would herald the end, for now, of the party in whose history he was steeped. He was its spiritual leader; his father, Brian, was its deputy leader; his grandfather, PJ, was a TD; his aunt, Mary O’Rourke, a minister and his brother, Conor, a minister of State.
Lenihan would be central to the events which were to unfold early in the new year, but it was clear, that Christmas, his last, he knew that death was on its way. He would be dead five months later, in fact, aged 52, 18 months after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, less than three years after he had been appointed Minister for Finance.
“I knew Brian Lenihan quite well,” Flaherty had said on Morning Ireland, before he acknowledged not just the “accomplishments” of the current Government, but also gave credit where he felt it due, to Brian Lenihan, the man who had set us upon a difficult path to recovery, still turning. It is ironic, indeed, that many of the politicians in Europe, who had given our finance minister a difficult time, now face the hard choices he had faced in the final three years of his life. He was, as Paul Gallagher said, an “inspiration” to us all, in many intertwined ways, not least for the manner in which undertook his job at a time of most serious illness.
But he was not always held so highly in regard, nor is he now by many. He was, though, a brilliant man. When he was appointed, on May 7, 2008, there were few, whatever they may say now, who could have predicted the scale of the crisis about to unfold, its speed, its allconsuming effect. Brian Lenihan must have had some idea though. He joked shortly after his appointment that it was his “misfortune” to take on the job just as a 10-year long property bubble was coming to a “shuddering halt”. Within months, the scale of the crisis was evident. On Saturday, September 13, 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed; Merrill Lynch was taken over the next day, and two days later, AIG, the world’s largest insurance company, went too.
The financial world was about to collapse, the banks of Ireland with it, and, here at home, a novice finance minister was in charge, newly appointed to the Government of a decadent age. Perhaps the most enduring impression of Brian Lenihan back then was provided by the journalist and economist, David McWilliams, in his book, Follow the Money. Lenihan was to take issue with an account given by McWilliams, specifically, a claim that the finance minister had told him of his officials: “They just don’t get it; we don’t have much time.” Whatever about that, it was a description of the minister that was to prove most illuminating, an indication of the stress Lenihan was under just a few months into the job.
“On Wednesday, September 17, at 10.20 in the evening there was a knock on our front door... The phone had rung about an hour before, so I was expecting him... The minister walked straight through the hall and headed directly into the kitchen as if he knew where he was going. Jaded, he sat down and turned off his phone... Taking note of his 12 o’clock shadow and red eyes, I suggested that he should catch a kip too. He said he’d doze off in the car on the way home.
“Then he pulled a bulb of garlic out of his pocket and started to peel it... he explained that the garlic gave him strength and kept him healthy and alert... he went on to say that he had been chomping raw garlic all summer, since he’d got the Finance job.” McWilliams later writes: “I felt sorry for Brian Lenihan that night. He looked exhausted. He had been working day and night and he was trying to understand everything.” That night, however, even after a few minutes, it was clear to the author that here was a man who could quickly pick up the most complex matters. He would need to.
It is not difficult to see why Brian Lenihan was under such stress. Less than two weeks later he took the first of two decisions which were to mark his tenure as Minister for Finance. On September 30, 2008, the Government introduced a State guarantee, not just for ordinary depositors, but for almost all of the debts of Ireland’s five banks, which turned out to be €440bn. The effect, as the Nobel laureate economist, Paul Krugman, would later put it, was to turn “private losses into public obligations”. Most observers now trace our ruin to the guarantee; but Lenihan argued that it had warded off a “financial nuclear winter”. He also told an RTE documentary of the reasoning behind the decision. With the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mind, ECB president Jean Claude Trichet had called Lenihan and told him: “Save the banks at all costs”.
Another ‘celebrity’ economist, Morgan Kelly, has said that the real error was to stick with the guarantee after it had become clear that bank losses were insupportable. The ideal time to have reversed the guarantee was a few months later, he said, when the bearded academic, Patrick Honohan, was appointed governor of the Central Bank. The second fateful decision, in April, 2009, was to set up Nama, the assets agency, which was to take over lost property loans of €70bn from the banks. The final bill to the taxpayer will not be known for a decade or more. It has become accepted to level the most swingeing criticism for these decisions at the then Minister for Finance.
But as Paul Gallagher said in eulogy, Brian Lenihan faced the most “daunting and awful challenges”, which needed decisions to be made “without guidance or hesitation”. It was not strictly true. It later emerged that there was guidance aplenty. It is easy to guide, of course, but not so easy to decide. In all, Brian Lenihan had to introduce 24 pieces of legislation, including four Budgets, in his time as Minister for Finance. In December 2009, 19 months in office, he introduced a Budget described as “the most austere in the history of the State”. It was to prove notorious, for several reasons. Not least a declaration by Lenihan that the “worst is over”, that, indeed, Ireland had “turned a corner”. As the economy lurched from crisis to crisis, and the banks imploded, the declaration was to be derided at every turn.
It is a little reported fact, however, that Brian Lenihan may have been right when he declared that a corner had been turned, if not that the worst was over. Recent figures from the Central Statistics Office indicate that the economy bottomed-out in the final quarter of 2009. In fact, between then and the second quarter of this year, GDP rose by 3.4 per cent and GNP by 2.6 per cent, which are respectable figures by EU and OECD standards. In any event, shortly after the introduction of that Budget, Brian Lenihan began to feel unwell. He was not sleeping.
The burdens of office were suspected. But he also had a pain in his abdomen. A hiatus hernia was mentioned. He went to his GP, who referred him to the Mater hospital, where tests were carried out. In no time rumours circulated, which his family, his brother Conor, in particular, were anxious to stamp out. “Rumours are going around,” he said, “don’t listen to them. It’s a hernia.” On December 23, his aunt, Mary O’Rourke called to the mother of the finance minister at her home in Castleknock. “It’s not good,” said Anne Lenihan, “not good at all.” That Christmas at her home in Athlone, Mary O’Rourke and her family “talked about it all the time”; then, on St Stephen’s Day, a call came through to watch TV3 News that evening.
The bulletin on Sunday, December 27, 2009, began: “TV3 news has learned that the Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, has been diagnosed with cancer.” The announcement was to shock to the country, certainly, but also the extended family, and friends who had not yet been informed of what the Lenihans were only beginning to come to terms with. On Monday, January 4, 2010, Brian Lenihan issued a statement to confirm that he would need chemotherapy and possibly radiotherapy after cancerous tissue had been removed from the entrance to his pancreas.
He said he would not be accepting speaking engagements during his treatment, but that he would continue to carry out his duties in the Department of Finance, in the Dail, and at Cabinet. “He was imbued with hope, he was imbued with confidence and he was imbued with courage,” Paul Gallagher said in eulogy: “If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed such courage was possible.” Within a fortnight Lenihan began six months of treatment. “He had to take rests a lot,” an adviser at the time has said. “There was a bed brought in for him to lie down during the day, but he still did long hours, early mornings, late evenings, he was still very focused.”
He needed to be. In short order a second bank bailout was announced, this time for €32bn; then in July, Moody’s cut the credit rating of Ireland a notch, and declared that the country faced a slow climb from recession. That August holiday weekend, Lenihan went to Loughrea to attend the launch of a small sailboat, the “67”, once owned by his grandfather, which had been restored by the local yacht club, and by his aunt, so sailing lessons could be provided to the young. “He enthused about it so much,” recalls Mrs O’Rourke. In fact, as he entered the final lap of his life, Lenihan was to return to Athlone again and again, to the town where he was born and raised, in an area known as the Retreat, until he was 12, when his family moved to Castleknock.
Later that month he gave an oration at the annual commemoration at Beal na mBlath, an invitation, extended by the Fine Gael TD, Jim O’Keeffe, that he was honoured to accept. Those who attended were tremendously moved by the scene. “It was the first time I saw a crowd demand that he be well,” recalls Mrs O’Rourke. By this time, six months on, Lenihan was hopeful that his treatment, though punishing, was working. He rang his aunt to tell her that the cancer had abated. He mentioned it twice, in fact, in a fortnight. She could hear the hope in his voice.
Four days later, Standard & Poors, another rating agency, cut the long-term rating of Ireland a notch; then the bank guarantee ended and €25bn fell due; the Government announced a third bailout and said, in a worst case scenario, that the banks would require more than €50bn. Fitch, a third ratings agency, cut the country’s rating, and cited the huge costs involved in cleaning up the banks. Gradually investors began to pull their money out of the country, and then more quickly. It was clear the end game was approaching. You would never have thought it had you attended the annual Fianna Fail thinkin in Galway that year. Seemingly oblivious to the mood of the country, the party went into party mode, none more so than the beleaguered Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. By this stage, a tension had become more evident between Cowen and Lenihan.
A contrast in styles seemed to isolate the Taoiseach. This is how Vanity Fair magazine, memorably described him: “He is not an obvious Leader of Men. His movements are sullen and lumbering, his face numbed by corpulence, his natural resting expression a look of confusion.” Lenihan, on the other hand, seemed routinely upbeat, notwithstanding his condition, or perhaps because of it. He was living in the moment. As such, he was prone to the occasional flourish of a naturalborn bluffer. But the public warmed to him anyway. The source of the tension went back almost a year.
Lenihan wanted to cut the public sector pay and pensions bill; Cowen wanted industrial peace. The finance minister was determined to press ahead; but, behind the scenes, Cowen had concocted a compromise with the unions, a 12-day unpaid leave wheeze. When details emerged, a large number of Fianna Fail TDs went into mini-revolt, Mary O’Rourke among them. She stated her position at a meeting of the parliamentary party. The Government, she said, meaning the Taoiseach, was in “cuckoo land” if they thought the stunt would work. After the meeting she received a telephone call at her office in Leinster House. “Hello,” the Taoiseach said to Mrs O’Rourke, who was taken aback. She had not expected the call. Cowen went on to accuse her of “undermining social partnership”, said that he “could not have that”, and declared: “We have it all worked out.” According to Mrs O’Rouke, she got an “awful fright”. It was only afterwards, she realised, that Cowen had suspected Lenihan of putting his aunt up to leading opposition to the move.
In Galway, at 3am or thereabouts, the Taoiseach was in flying form, giving raucous voice to the Lakes of Pontchartrain and other such classics. The revelry told in his voice the next morning, close to 9am, during a delayed Morning Ireland interview. The Fine Gael TD, Simon Coveney tweeted that Cowen sounded “halfway between drunk and hungover”, a claim that the Taoiseach denied. The damage was done. All hell broke loose. In retrospect, it was the moment a dysfunctional Government had finally come to an end; but the most seismic events yet were still to play out.
Fianna Fail TDs clamoured for Lenihan to make a move for the leadership. The finance minister did not discourage them, but nor did he feel inclined to make such a move. There was the loyalty issue, of course. He let it be known that he was willing to assume the leadership, however, although not to challenge for it. Really, his position was that a General Election was preferable. If Cowen had gone to the country at that stage he may have saved Fianna Fail a little of the ignominy to follow, namely, the arrival on its watch of what would become known as the troika, that is, the EU/ECB/IMF.
On the afternoon of Friday, November 12, 2010, a report flashed across the news wires. An ECB source was cited. It said that at a meeting the previous day, Ireland had been put under pressure to tap a rescue fund set up for weaker eurozone countries. Over the following 16 days an extraordinary series of events unfolded, which culminated in a bailout of Ireland. As the speculation intensified over the weekend of November 13 and 14, 2010, a series of denials by members of the Cabinet was made. Dermot Ahern, flanked by Noel Dempsey, appeared on RTE television to describe media reports of an imminent bailout as “fiction”.
The denials continued on Wednesday, up to and including from Brian Cowen himself. On the Thursday, however, Patrick Honohan appeared on Morning Ireland to state frankly that there would be an aid package amounting to tens of billions of euro. Honohan has subsequently said that, by the first days of November, 2010, it had become absolutely clear to him that the bailout route “was the way to go”. But Brian Lenihan said the ECB had forced Ireland to take the bailout; he rejected claims that Ireland was warned of the dangers it faced; ECB members had “damaged” Ireland, he said; he accused them of “betrayal”.
It was not known then but can be disclosed that, on the Wednesday night, Brian Lenihan strolled into the self-service restaurant with his aunt, Mary O’Rourke and the Fianna Fail senator, Terry Leyden. It was shortly after 9pm. His private secretary, Dermot Moynihan, hurried in to say that Honohan was on the line. Lenihan left behind a salad plate and said he would be back. When he returned he was “angry”; no, says Mrs O’Rourke, he was “furious.” Honohan had wanted him to convene a meeting of the Cabinet.
Subsequently, the Governor said he had learned that an editorial was to appear in the following day’s Financial Times “saying effectively people should be planning on bank runs”. He was concerned about the possible effect on stability and needed to provide reassurance. The Minister for Finance did not have the authority to convene a meeting of the Cabinet, even if he had the inclination, which he did not. As Morgan Kelly has said, Lenihan wanted to exploit a strong negotiating position: but Honohan, who “plays for the opposing team” as a member of the ECB council, had other ideas.
Kelly wrote: “Rarely has a finance minister been so deftly sliced off at the ankles by his central bank governor.” It was decreed, inevitably, that bank losses be repaid by the Irish taxpayer, and so, said Kelly, it ran its predictable course, with the financial collapse and international bailout of the Irish State. As for Lenihan, well, he was crestfallen: “I’ve a very vivid memory of going to Brussels on the final Monday to sign the agreement, and being on my own at the airport and looking at the snow gradually thawing and thinking to myself, this is terrible. No Irish minister has ever had to do this before.” From that point events began to quickly unravel: the Green Party announced its intention to quit Government; Cowen’s leadership came under sustained attack; the Government seemed to play for time, but was forced to quickly tie up loose ends.
Micheal Martin, not Brian Lenihan, succeeded Cowen as leader of Fianna Fail; the finance minister, whose challenge, in truth, was only halfhearted, was undone in the end by a sense of let down among Fianna Fail TDs, who felt he should have challenged the leader before then, but all of whom, when the dust had settled, quickly forgave. The meltdown of Fianna Fail at the election in February surpassed expectation, an outcome which set Lenihan, who alone held his seat in Dublin, on a downward slope. The former Government speechwriter, Brian Murphy recalls enjoying a road trip with a failing Lenihan to Athlone. Both men share a love of history. Lenihan also met the former Fine Gael Justice Minister, Paddy Cooney, that day and they had a long chat.
In the following weeks, in Leinster House, colleagues of all parties and none, across every divide, moved to privately embrace the former finance minister. It was as if they, and he, were saying their goodbyes. In early June, during a final telephone call to his aunt, Lenihan told Mary O’Rourke he was tired: “I’m very tired, I can’t stop sleeping,” he said. “I sleep for 12 hours and then I want to sleep some more.” Brian Lenihan died at his home in Strawberry Beds on Friday morning, June 10, 2010, his wife Patricia and children, Tom and Claire, by his bedside.