FF dynasties at war over failed legacy
Public now seeing the extent to which Cowen and Lenihan distrusted each other as the Banking Inquiry hots up, writes Daniel McConnell
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
Last Thursday, as the sun shone down on the Leinster House plinth, two great Fianna Fail warring dynasties came face to face.
Former minister Conor Lenihan was ambling through the complex until he stopped and came into contact with Barry Cowen, sitting party TD and brother of former Taoiseach Brian.
"Who is that, ah, it is the man from the midlands," said Lenihan as he approached.
"Ah, the man from Russia," came the cool response from Cowen in reference to Lenihan's post-TD business activities, as several other people present looked on.
Amid strained smiles, the tension was palpable. After a few short uncomfortable pleasantries exchanged, Lenihan moved on and out of the Kildare Street gate.
Lenihan had been around the Dail for most of the week after he and his aunt Mary O'Rourke sent a legal letter to the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry demanding the right to counter any potentially damaging testimony that could impinge on the reputation of the late finance minister, Brian Lenihan.
Their concerns were raised after I reported as far back as January that Brian Cowen was desperate to get into the inquiry to refute evidence given by Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan that he directly overruled Lenihan on the night of the guarantee on September 29, 2008 as to its size, shape and make-up.
Lenihan, we know, wanted to exclude Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide but Cowen is said to have overruled him, favouring the €440bn blanket guarantee.
Conor Lenihan has said that Honohan's evidence was accurate and was in keeping with his recollections of the time.
In the days after Honohan's bombshell, Barry Cowen made it clear that his brother was deeply unhappy with the Governor's comments.
He dismissed Honohan's evidence to the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry as "pure conjecture".
"I just hope they don't delay his appearance to such an extent as to allow what has been said to be left out there. It's pure conjecture, and what the hell is he talking about?" he said.
"He wasn't at Cabinet, it was a Cabinet decision, so he wasn't privy to those discussions - whether in a room or how those discussions were performed."
Then last weekend, breaking his silence, Brian Cowen, speaking at a book launch in Killarney, denied he overruled his then rookie finance minister.
He said: "Obviously, Brian (Lenihan) had some views. We discussed them. There were problems with nationalisation and there were problems with guarantee. There was no one who could say there was one correct thing to do. If that happened, everything would have been a lot different."
But, clearly concerned that the former Taoiseach in particular could say something that could possibly impinge on the reputation of the late finance minister, Conor Lenihan and Mary O'Rourke fired a clear shot across the bows of the inquiry.
Explaining their decision to send in the legal letter from Eames Solicitors last Friday week, Conor Lenihan said: "We sent a legal letter to the committee seeking access to the committee should comments be made that we believe to be untrue in connection with any action taken by my late brother Brian Lenihan when he was minister."
"It is not that we are looking for rights beyond what we are entitled to, at the end of the day Mary O'Rourke was a Dail deputy, I was a Dail deputy and a minister in the government. And by luck of birth we were related to the minister who was making all of those decisions," he added.
He said that now the inquiry has entered into a controversial phase, he and his aunt are closely monitoring events and would seek a right of reply should they deem it necessary.
"It is possible that witnesses may choose to put forward their own version of events that may be at odds with what I understand and know to be the facts from the actions taken by my late brother," he said.
Confirming again that he agreed with the version of events put forward by Prof Honohan, he added: "I have already been quoted in the newspaper that I stated that I believe Prof Honohan's memory of my brother's position is correct. I think this controversy over whether he was overruled or not is a separate matter but I do know for a matter of fact that that was my brother's position.
"That was accurately set out by the Governor of the Central Bank. I have no issue with what the Governor has stated in his testimony before the committee."
It has emerged this weekend that the inquiry has not granted them an automatic right of reply.
The committee has responded to Eames Solicitors, setting out the guiding principles of balance and fairness under which it is operating. But it is understood the Lenihans are not satisfied with the response and are to consider the matter with their legal team in the coming days.
But the row is simply the latest illustration of how soured the relationship between the two Brians had become with two dynasties now at war.
Brian Cowen was thrust into the Dail at the age of just 24, having stood for election following the death of his father, Ber Cowen. He spent his entire adult life until 2011 as a TD, rising fast through the ranks under Albert Reynolds.
Lenihan, in a similar story, took the seat vacated by his late father Brian senior in 1996. Despite his legal background and Oxbridge education, he was overlooked for promotion by Bertie Ahern and had to wait until 2007 for his first Cabinet post.
Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan were the two pivotal political figures in the ill-starred Government faced with tackling the greatest fiscal crisis since the foundation of the State.
Outwardly, the two men attempted, and to a large extent succeeded, in portraying a united front. But in truth, that was a mirage. Their political and personal relationship was dysfunctional and went far beyond a mere personality clash. The disintegration of their relationship was personal and it had a serious impact on the workings of government. Mutual suspicion and mistrust between the two Brians proved disastrous for Fianna Fail, their government and the country.
Cowen, instead of seeking counsel from his most senior minister, sought solace and advice from his tight-knit coterie of 'Dail Bar' cronies, who harboured animosity to the Cambridge-educated finance minister, ultimately calling on Cowen to sack him.
Lenihan, who had cancer, assumed the role of saving the country single-handedly, often against the wishes of his Taoiseach, while battling the terminal illness. It was a relationship that was doomed to failure. Lenihan quickly became frustrated and disillusioned with his leader, distanced himself from him as a result and ultimately realised that Cowen was not up to the job.
It eventually came to the point where Lenihan, despite his terminal illness, was openly plotting against his leader. By the time the Troika had darkened our doors in November 2011, the collapse of their relationship was complete.
After Cowen appeared to be "between drunk and hung over" on RTE's Morning Ireland in September 2010, as alleged by Fine Gael's Simon Coveney on Twitter, anticipation of a Lenihan heave reached a crescendo. Lenihan was furious at Cowen over the interview.
Speaking to me three days later, he conceded that the Morning Ireland interview was "very damaging".
"The Taoiseach apologised to his colleagues over the matter. Yes, it has been damaging and yes, precisely, it has been an unwanted distraction," he said. Behind the scenes a great deal of activity was taking place. Lenihan and his supporters were mobilising.
Lenihan was a hugely popular figure and seen as the man best placed to save FF from electoral annihilation. He was canvassing opinion as to whether he would have sufficient support to mount a challenge.
"Yes, he was actively seeking support. At that stage, he was exhaustive in his trawl of the numbers, to see if he had the support. He certainly gave everybody the impression he was going to challenge," John McGuinness recalled.
"There was anticipation that Brian Lenihan would make a move," Willie O'Dea said. That weekend, the Sunday Independent's main headline went: 'Lenihan is willing to accept leadership - TDs hoping Cowen will stand down voluntarily to avoid damaging battle' and the story told of Lenihan's willingness to stand for the leadership, but only if Cowen went quietly.
However, independent TDs Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae, on whose support the government depended, would not countenance another change of Fianna Fail leader without an election. Swayed by these factors, Lenihan ultimately decided against challenging Cowen.