Schoolboy errors may see former head boy fail leadership test
Published 25/01/2011 | 05:00
FOR someone who's always come top of the class, Brian Lenihan looks like he may have to settle for second place in the Fianna Fail leadership race.
A scholar through all levels of his education -- head boy at Belvedere, first class honours in Trinity and Cambridge -- and with an impeccable Fianna Fail pedigree, he was seen as a potential leader.
He was a college lecturer, a barrister specialising in commercial and copyright law and eventually a senior counsel.
His father, Brian snr, had a long political career, culminating in his period as Tanaiste, and Mary O'Rourke, his aunt, was deputy leader of Fianna Fail and held a number of cabinet positions.
When Brian snr died in November 1995, Fianna Fail inevitably turned to the son.
The Dublin West by-election was held in April 1996 and, as Pat Leahy writes in his book 'Showtime', Lenihan knew Ahern needed him badly. Ahern's leadership was being questioned and victory in Dublin West was essential.
Brian jnr had effectively taken over as the Dublin West TD as his father's health worsened. He had already been involved in some of his father's political campaigns.
When the party came knocking for the by-election, Lenihan told Ahern he was willing to stand -- if he got a promise that Fianna Fail would not support the development of a casino in the Phoenix Park.
Ahern agreed, but never forgot the cheek of Lenihan the younger. It sowed the seeds for a testy relationship between the two men.
He was constantly overlooked for promotion, even after heavyweights like Charlie McCreevy lobbied for him, but he was junior minister for children from 2002 to 2007.
His eventual elevation to the senior ministerial ranks in 2007 was viewed by many as long overdue, and he was said to be extremely happy in his position in the Department of Justice.
When Brian Cowen took over as Taoiseach in 2008, Lenihan was surprised to be given the Finance portfolio, and initially seemed lost in the job.
He gradually seemed to get a handle on it, but phrases like "turning the corner" and "the cheapest bailout in the world" came back to haunt him.
His standing took a battering and his reputation for being a master of his brief was replaced by someone seen as a bluffer, the barrister who argued his case persuasively but sold the country a litter of puppies.
As the economic crisis deepened, the relationship between him and Cowen worsened, with the December 2009 proposal to give public sector workers 12 days' unpaid leave instead of cutting their pay a major flashpoint.
"Brian thought it couldn't be done and the public reaction to it bore that out," a source close to Lenihan said. "The relationship never really recovered after that."
It deteriorated further over the following year, with Cowen's supporters accusing Lenihan of undermining the Taoiseach.
The Cowen camp expected any leadership challenge to come from Lenihan, and believe Micheal Martin acted last week because he thought the Finance Minister was about to move. Lenihan's camp had touted him as a leader-in-waiting, and the minister always lent an ear to disgruntled backbenchers.
Lenihan's opportune time to move seemed to be in the wake of the 'Garglegate' incident last September, but he did not strike. He now says any move would have meant he would have had to resign as Finance Minister, which would have been irresponsible.
Another tense point came during the EU-IMF bailout, with blame being shifted from the Cowen camp to the Department of Finance over how the public was kept in the dark.
Unlike Cowen, who surrounded himself with staunch allies, Lenihan is not seen as particularly close to many in the party.
"I wouldn't describe him as a 'my-gang' man at all," one ministerial colleague said. He speaks fluent French and Latin and his main interests are history and reading -- but mostly politics.
"He's 100pc a politician. I don't think I've ever seen him wear a pair of jeans," a Dublin West source said. "If someone wants to talk to him, he'll drag them into the middle of the room so everyone can see it. He's a pure politician."
If this contest had been held six months ago, Lenihan would have won. But his reputation has taken such a pasting since then that Martin is seen as a comfortable frontrunner. If Lenihan is to win TDs over to his side, he'll need all his persuasive barristerial skills.