Brian Lenihan: May 21 1959 – June 10 2011
Even a few months on, after the dust of the 2011 general election has settled, one fact about the result still manages to produce a sense of disbelief.
Out of 47 seats available throughout the whole of Dublin, Fianna Fail won only one, that secured with little difficulty by the outgoing finance minister Brian Lenihan.
The figure makes an obvious point about how Fianna Fail had come to be regarded by the electorate on February 25. But it speaks equally eloquently about what people thought of Brian Lenihan.
Even those who despaired at his performance in the department of finance, who believed that the policies he was introducing on behalf of his party were doling the country untold damage, never doubted Lenihan’s sincerity, honesty or bravery in grappling with the biggest financial crisis in Ireland’s history.
He never shirked a fight, never avoided a debate, could never resist the temptation to point out key differences between the parties everybody knew would be forming the next government.
That he managed to do the most stressful job in politics at a time when he was receiving treatment for the pancreatic cancer which has now sadly ended his life only increased people’s respect.
As Vanity Fair magazine said earlier this year, before the election, Lenihan was the “last remaining Irish politician anywhere near power whose mere appearance does not cause people on the streets of Dublin to explode with either scorn or laughter”.
He was a reluctant politician initially, although politics was in his blood. His father, who also died of cancer, was Brian Lenihan senior, a cabinet minister for more than a quarter of a century and a former presidential candidate for his party.
His grandfather Patrick was a Fianna Fail TD, as was his aunt Mary O’Rourke, herself a former cabinet minister. His brother Conor was a Fianna Fail TD until he lost his seat in the anti-Fianna Fail tsunami of February 2011 which left Brian as the only Fianna Failer standing.
Brian Lenihan had been forging a successful career in the Law Library when, in 1998, he was prevailed upon to contest the Dublin West by-election caused by the death of his father.
There were doubts about whether he could win – Joe Higgins, now a Socialist party TD was many people’s favourite – but in the end Lenihan secured enough votes to win Fianna Fail’s first by-election in 11 years.
Lenihan’s obvious intelligence may have worked against him in Fianna Fail. It took him nine years to win a seat in cabinet, although he served two terms as a junior minister.
During that period, he showed a certain level of bravery by questioning whether Bertie Ahern should have accepted payments at the famous Manchester dinner, and describing the Taoiseach’s behaviour as “unthinkable”. In 2007, he was finally promoted to cabinet, as minister for justice. When Ahern resigned as Taoiseach less than a year later, his successor Brian Cowen appointed Lenihan as minister for finance.
To say he had a baptism of fire would be to understate the case. By the time he arrived in Finance, it was clear that the country’s economy was in deep trouble, laid low by a dangerous combination of out-of-control developers, overly generous banks, and lax regulation by his own department and its agencies.
In just over a year, he had introduced three budgets, set up Nama, and introduced the bank guarantee, now widely regarded – even by some people in his own party – as the main cause of our current difficulties.
Not that Lenihan ever agreed with that. He argued consistently that he had had no option but to bring in the guarantee in order to stop a mass exodus of deposits from Irish banks and refused to back down on that assertion even after it became clear that the consequence of that decision had been to turn the debts of the banks into the debts of the taxpayer. That lead, inevitably, to last year’s IMF/EU/ECB bailout and the consequences we see all around us.
As economic conditions worsened last year, some people wondered whether Lenihan’s illness was having an effect on how he was doing his job. Those who knew him best, however, suggested that the opposite force was in play: Lenihan was able to keep the disease at bay using the same determination and energy that he brought to his job.
When that job finished, in March this year, his health took an almost immediate turn for the worse. After spending some time in hospital last month, he returned home to spend his last days with his wife Patricia Ryan, a Circuit Court judge, and their son and daughter.
Before his illness worsened, and with an eye on his legacy, he gave a detailed interview to BBC radio in April, accusing ECB officials of “betrayal” and of effectively bouncing Ireland into taking the bailout.
“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”, he said. “No Irish minister has ever had to do this before.”
But no Irish minister has ever had to work so hard before, either, and with such honesty and dedication. Perhaps that will be his legacy.
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