John Drennan: Lenihan a Romantic hero doomed to fail
IT says something about our national character, and it is not necessarily good, that the most common trait of the Irish political icon is that their heroic status is defined by failure rather than triumph.
Maybe it is that former colonies are not easy with success but Padraig Pearse set a template for Irish political iconography, which was further strengthened by the Romantic nihilism of Noel Browne. It could be argued that other icons such as Michael Collins and Donogh O’Malley had their successes, but their place in the affection of the national psyche was cemented by the poignancy of their early deaths.
On one level the tragic career of Brian Lenihan certainly dovetailed into Ireland’s love affair with the triumph of failure. Even before he finally secured the ministry that was to define him, Lenihan’s career was a study in elegant failure. He had been held back, almost to the point of openly voiced frustration, by Bertie Ahern’s dyspeptic attitude to overly clever members of the barrister class. Worse still, Lenihan had the added flaw of coming from one of Fianna Fail’s great dynasties and, like his mentor Haughey, the ward boss was steeped in distaste for those whom he believed had come up the easy way.
Ironically, given his current iconic state, even when he finally secured high office, Lenihan continued to fail. He may have taken over an economy which had already come to ‘a juddering halt’ but all of his subsequent actions, be it the timorous nature of his initial budgets, Nama, or the appalling banking guarantee increased the chaos. Even the minister’s repeated attempts to raise the morale of the nation via those calls for Ireland to do its ‘patriotic duty’ and the increasingly desperate claims that we had turned ‘the corner’ ultimately served only to bring political optimism into disrepute.
In fairness, the dismal ineptitude of his predecessor, Brian Cowen, meant the death of the first Republic and the decimation of the ‘It was his courage in defying cancer that defined him as the wounded warrior’ party that shaped that Republic was as inevitable as the tide. But, while Lenihan’s unease with high finance was to some extent understandable, what was more surprising was how he was equally inept at the dark art of political conspiracies.
The man who would be king failed in that ambition to such an extent that when it came to the succession race he was overtaken by Micheal Martin and, more excruciatingly still, by Eamon O Cuiv. In truth, given that Lenihan was in a party of the most egotistical place-men since the Irish parliament that passed the Act of Union, his ineptitude should probably actually stand to his credit.
However, the shattered visage of Lenihan after the post-Cowen leadership battle suggested it didn’t feel like that at the time. Ironically, when it came to the strange love affair that developed between the people and the minister, the thing which created the icon destroyed the man. It was his courage in defying cancer that defined Lenihan as the wounded warrior who stood by the dying Republic until they both fell almost simultaneously.
His earlier career may have been a study in failure but Lenihan was, in the eyes of the public, the sole modern politician who was infused with the sacrificial patriotic spirit of 1916. In an age and a government of fattened malcontents, he stood by the Republic in a manner no other politician was capable of achieving. Of course, greatness in the form of that cancer, which stripped away his previously boyish veneer, was thrust upon him by the indifferent fates.
But Lenihan could have refused the gauntlet, cried ‘no more’ and turned his face to the wall. Instead he faced into the abyss of the ineptitude of his own party, the bureaucratic bullies of the European Central Bank and the stark realities of waiting for a plane on a freezing winter’s morning so he could sign the deeds which surrendered the independence of the Irish Republic whilst Cowen skulked in the warmth of government buildings. And then, after the election, when he was needed no more and the adrenalin-fuelled crusade was over, his condition worsened.
If there is a moment that captures the essence of Brian Lenihan, it occurred when he was invited by Fine Gael to give the Beal na mBlath speech in honour of Michael Collins. It is not just that the suspicion lingers that, like Collins, Lenihan was shafted by devious political leaders who were looking to serve their own, rather than the country’s interest. We know about Bertie but there was always more than a slight suspicion that Cowen too, appointed Lenihan as a tethered goat in Finance, to deflect attention away from his own capacious failings.
In spite of Lenihan’s courage, it was argued one of the great problems with Brian was that he was too loyal both to Mr Cowen and to a FF party that had been hollowed out to a husk by venal political sole traders. It was, of course, the fatal flaw of the entire Lenihan dynasty, for Brian Lenihan Senior was strangled by his willingness to be the servant of intellectually inferior but more determined political creatures such as Mr Haughey. When it came to Brian Junior, this loyalty meant that while he could empathise with the soulsearching, and in some cases utter fear, experienced by the party TDs, Lenihan could not plunge the knife into the still-half-living corpse of Cowen.
It should also not be forgotten there were genuine reasons, beyond those of the interests of the party, why Lenihan could not challenge Cowen, for back in that dark time of 2010 Ireland was cartwheeling towards an abyss. To collapse the Government, as a challenge to Mr Cowen might surely have done, would have run the risk of witnessing an implosion of the economy.
We can criticise Lenihan for being too loyal to Brian Cowen or even to Fianna Fail, but, unlike self-interested political adventurers such as Mary Harney or Bertie Ahern, he was also loyal to the interests of the Irish State. Paradoxically, in one regard Bertie’s earlier indifference may have played an accidental role in the making of Lenihan. The new icon of Irish politics was partly a spoilt child of the law library when he originally came into politics but the coldness of Ahern, though painful, tempered the hidden steel that was at the core of Lenihan.
Though unpleasant, it was a necessary 10-year fast in the wilderness which prepared Lenihan for the firestorm he would walk through alone and without even the support of a Taoiseach. His natural kindness and humanity may also on occasion have stilled his hand. We do not normally associate such virtues with Irish politicians but nothing epitomised that particular trait more than his story, on Miriam O’Callaghan’s radio show, of the time where his dying little brother’s disinterest in the galaxy of Christmas gifts he received warned the young Lenihan that, for his younger brother the things of this world were not for him.
In contrast, up to the end, Lenihan continued to be fascinated by the world he lived in. On one of the last evenings he spent in Leinster House, the former Finance Minister mischievously noted that he had left a few landmines for the incoming Rainbow Coalition to deal with. It did not seem possible, despite his emaciated state, to believe this was a dying man. But a few weeks later, like Bede’s sparrow flying from the light and warmth of a banquet hall in winter, he was gone, never to return to the living warmth of this world.
If we are to ever have a tribunal into the death of the first Republic, whatever about the rest of the FF mini-gauleiters who served under Ahern and Cowen, when it comes to Brian Lenihan, we suspect it will say the only crime he can be convicted of is loyalty. And while he may have loved Fianna Fail too much, in a world where figures like Martin McGuinness ape concepts such as republicanism, it can surely be argued the kindness and faith that informed Lenihan’s ‘sins’ were virtues.
Or to put it another way, any analysis of Lenihan’s flaws should be informed by the judgement of the Irish Times on another Irish icon, Noel Browne, when the paper noted that while, when it came to the Mother and Child scheme, Browne was too stubborn for his own good “if he goes, something clean, something pure, something rare will go too”’.