Saturday 3 December 2016

Party rivalries forgotten as mourners honour a patriot

True statesman devoted career to public service

Published 15/06/2011 | 05:00

THE politicians who packed St Mochta's Church near Dublin yesterday for Brian Lenihan's funeral hold firm beliefs and float big ideas.

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They had come to say bon voyage to one of their own -- but over the previous five days they realised that Mr Lenihan was actually out on his own.

Those very experienced politicians were taken aback by the spontaneous respect and affection that the public expressed for him through a long illness and after his death.

Over the past 18 months Mr Lenihan morphed from politician to statesman and yesterday in his own parish he was buried as a gentleman, a scholar and a patriot.

And every one of the politicians gathered in that intimate and beautiful church yesterday sees themselves as patriots.

Each is convinced of their own ideology and policies, all of them certain that their way is the best way for the people who elected them.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and most of his cabinet, Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and the DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson were there.

Micheal Martin and his colleagues represented the new vanguard of Fianna Fail.

Politicians retired and serving, from every party and none, attended the funeral Mass.

Yet scanning through the credentials of many of them, one would have to wonder how many would qualify as patriots rather than nationalists.

Sydney J Harris, a US columnist nailed it: "The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does."

Harris went on: "The first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war."

Reading Harris's wise words recalls the breadth of Mr Lenihan's imagination and the generosity that he imbued in his politics.

After the intensely moving funeral Mass and the masterful oratory of the former Attorney General Paul Gallagher, another example of Brian Lenihan's political ecumenism came to mind.

Jim O'Keeffe, who retired as Fine Gael TD in Cork South West at the last general election, recalled his part in the piece of political theatre last August that many believe elevated Mr Lenihan from politician to statesman to patriot.

Earlier last year Mr O'Keeffe asked the then minister for finance if he was invited to address the annual commemoration of Michael Collins at Beal na mBlath, would he accept?

Mr Lenihan fixed Mr O'Keeffe a stare with his big blue eyes and said that a lot of old Blue Shirts would not like the idea.

Mr Lenihan later said the address at Beal na mBlath made him more proud than any other political act he had done.

From that August Sunday through the autumn of last year, Mr Lenihan could, if he had chosen to, become leader of Fianna Fail.

It was a paradox that no one can explain: how can a Minister for Finance in the most unpopular government in the history of the State, in the biggest economic crisis since independence, be the country's most popular politician? At least some of the answers were inside and outside St Mochta's Church yesterday and at the books of condolence in Athlone and at Government Buildings.

There was great affection for Mr Lenihan, who was transparently decent, but that is not enough to generate the emotion that followed his illness and death.

The public respected him and respect in politics cannot be downloaded by stunts or bought by public relations.

Mr Lenihan could have earned vast sums of money as a lawyer but instead chose public service.

The public saw a patriot and they gave him respect for his selflessness in their service.

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