Fionnan Sheahan: Collins man Lenihan a potent power against FG
Published 23/08/2010 | 05:00
NEWSWEEK's nomination of Taoiseach Brian Cowen as one of the world's best leaders prompted much scoffing and large dollops of disbelief on this side of the Atlantic.
Cowen's supporters may argue he is like a prophet in his own land and his efforts are not appreciated.
But the Taoiseach's failure to communicate effectively with the public he leads has been his Achilles heel through this economic downturn and road to recovery.
His repeated failure to genuinely acknowledge his own part in the origins of the crisis means he is immediately off to a bad start when it comes to acclaim being attributed for the steps now needed to rectify matters. Cowen's image among the electorate is grossly unfair, and does not do him justice, but he has not done enough to improve it.
In contrast, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan is largely viewed in a positive manner from across the political spectrum.
Aside from the misguided and immature criticism from certain quarters within Fine Gael, the majority of the party had no problem with him addressing the annual Beal na mBlath commemoration yesterday.
Lenihan's selection as the speaker went far beyond his membership of Fianna Fail.
Indeed, if party affiliations were solely based upon Civil War stances, Lenihan would be a member of Fine Gael -- not Fianna Fail.
His grandfather, Paddy Lenihan, was on the Free State side and a Collins man.
In the early years of the State, he became disillusioned with politics.
Admiring his talents, Sean Lemass brought him into the Fianna Fail fold, where he went on to serve as a TD.
His son, Brian Lenihan Snr, is still revered within Leinster House and regarded as one of the most popular figures to pass through the gates on Kildare Street.
The current Dail has three Lenihans in its ranks -- Brian Jnr, his junior minister brother Conor, and their aunt Mary O'Rourke.
The Lenihans are about as close as you can get right now to Fianna Fail royalty, and yet Brian Lenihan is not regarded as a partisan figure.
Unlike the tribalism of Cowen, Lenihan is always respectful to his colleagues on the opposition benches (even when he's ignoring their concerns on economic policy).
Lenihan is also a scholar of history, so he would have greatly appreciated the significance of the invitation to a Fianna Failer to such an event.
A friend of his noted at the weekend that "his passion is politics and history".
As a Finance Minister in troubled times, the parallel to be drawn is to Collins, as Minister for Finance at the foundation of the State. Lenihan was keen yesterday to recognise the step taken in issuing the invitation to give an oration at Beal na mBlath.
"If today's commemoration can be seen as a further public act of historical reconciliation, at one of Irish history's sacred places, then I will be proud to have played my part in that regard," he said.
Bizarrely, this is a man whose intellect was seen as a reason for his failure to be promoted to the Cabinet by Bertie Ahern until 2007.
In the current climate, where the public has yearned for well -above-average leaders, Lenihan's intellect has become a source of admiration and allowed him to assume a revered place in the public mindset.
The conviction with which he speaks allows little room for manoeuvre, however, and Lenihan is not always as correct in his declarations as he would wish for people to believe.
His battle with cancer has further endeared him to a nation so rapidly falling out of love with the tainted legacy of his party's actions through the Celtic Tiger years.
Lenihan made history by becoming the first Fianna Fail figure to deliver the oration at Beal na mBlath.
But his membership of Fianna Fail was the least of the reasons for his selection.
Conscious of the gesture of his hosts, Lenihan did not disappoint in delivering an address that spanned all the political sensitivities.
"The spirit of Collins is the spirit of the nation, and it must continue to inspire all of us in public life, irrespective of party or tradition," Lenihan rounded off.
The organisers of the Beal na mBlath commemoration are predominantly of a Fine Gael hue, but they are also independent of the party and have their own mind.
Those who delivered the oration in the past decade or so included Maurice Manning, Michael Noonan, Simon Coveney, Jim Higgins, Enda Kenny and Sean Kelly, but the list is also notable for its absences, such as John Bruton.
The former Fine Gael leader never delivered the oration -- no doubt because he was always seen as a Redmondite rather than a Collins follower.
Bruton's abhorrence of force as a means to achieve independence came through again at the weekend. Speaking to a group of US politicians at a conference in Leinster House, he noted the United States and many European countries were formed out of bloodshed.
"This country gained its independence as a result of people being killed.
"I would argue that it could have been achieved without that, but most people would take a different view," he said. The Beal na mBlath committee's selection of Mr Lenihan and his gracious acceptance has added to his standing.
Enhancing Mr Lenihan's status as a figure who transcends the political divide, for the moment, may yet come back to haunt Fine Gael.
Especially if there is a change of leader in Fianna Fail in the near or medium future.
Official recognition as a carrier of the legacy of Collins would be a potent power for a Fianna Fail leader facing off against a Fine Gael counterpart.