Tuesday 28 February 2017

Like father, like son . . . popular, fun, admirable and, above all, decent

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

THE tributes came in thick and fast for the man who had come to be liked by more than just Fianna Fail supporters.

"He was a popular politician, noted for his sense of humour, affability and admirable personality," said one.

"He was warm, gregarious and fun loving," said another. And it was also mentioned how everybody admired his courage in dealing with his ill health.

Those were not the tributes yesterday to Brian Lenihan -- they were delivered on the floor of the Seanad 16 years earlier after the death of his father Brian Lenihan Snr. And it was former Fine Gael Senator Maurice Manning who described him that day in 1995 as a "decent man" -- the same phrase used about his son yesterday by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Mr Lenihan will always be identified with the party into which he was born. It is true to say that he came to politics late at the age of 37, after pursuing a successful career as a barrister. He was elected to the Dail in a by-election in Dublin West in 1996 following the death of his father from a liver complaint.

He was very popular with his party colleagues and had an endearing habit of picking chips off their plate when he sat down to talk to them in the Dail members' restaurant.

He lived in Castleknock, Dublin, but his family's roots were in Co Roscommon.

He was disappointed when his political career was stalled by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who passed him over for promotion. The best he got was a job as junior minister for children between 2002-2007, where he managed to get departments like Justice, Education and Health to improve their woefully inadequate co-operation on issues such as child protection.

He was delighted on two fronts when Mr Ahern made him Justice Minister in 2007 -- he got a chance as a barrister to engage in law reform and he was taking over the department his late father had headed in the 1960s.

He was seen as a competent minister but his short year in charge was not all plain sailing as the murder rate continued to rise and child sexual abuse scandals continued to emerge.

Mr Lenihan remained a popular figure in Fianna Fail and this did not change when he became Finance Minister in May 2008. His door was always open for backbenchers and even opposition TDs who had issues to raise.

He won further admiration in the party for his courageous battle against cancer -- which on occasion left him looking exhausted and haggard in the Dail. That was not easy for a man who took pride in his appearance. He used to get his Dail speeches printed in large type because he disliked wearing his reading glasses.

As the Government lurched from crisis to crisis, a group of Fianna Fail TDs saw Mr Lenihan as their potential saviour and urged him to challenge Mr Cowen. Mr Lenihan was known to be unhappy with Mr Cowen's work rate and believed that he was not applying himself enough to the job.

But as recently as last summer, Mr Lenihan knew he did not have the backing of the 20 TDs he needed to mount a challenge.

By last September, when he announced yet another increase in the cost of the bank bailout, his star was waning. Many Fianna Fail TDs no longer believed his pronouncements about the economy. It was this damaged credibility, rather than concerns about his health, which saw him finish embarrassingly in third place behind Eamon O Cuiv and the winner Micheal Martin in last January's leadership contest.

Mr Lenihan was tremendously proud of the fact that he had retained his seat in Dublin West in the general election.

It was said of his father that when he got sick, he did not lie down. His son did the same.

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