Symbolic bravery not enough to save Lenihan's political legacy
Brian Lenihan remains one of the most controversial and divisive finance ministers in our history, writes Daniel McConnell
Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30
Last Wednesday, members of Brian Lenihan's family gathered in Blanchardstown for his fourth anniversary mass.
Dead at 52, having battled to save the country for two-and-a-half years and a terminal illness for 18 months, his legacy as finance minister is once again being assessed. This is right and proper as his term in office was the most dramatic, the most controversial since Michael Collins held that post.
Lenihan, the son, grandson, nephew and brother of Fianna Fail ministers, was steeped in the party's politics and tradition. Named Breen, he was a son of the midlands, born and raised in Athlone until he was 12. He went on to become a Trinity College Dublin law scholar and later a successful Senior Counsel.
The death of his father, Brian senior, led him to contest the 1996 Dublin West by-election. His director of elections, Noel Dempsey, has recalled his thoughts on Lenihan at the time: "I said to him 'you're not Breen anymore, you're Brian, the electorate don't give a feck, Brian was your father's name, they'll recognise that."
Frustrated for several years by Bertie Ahern who delayed his promotion to the ministerial ranks, Lenihan had to bide his time on the backbenches.
Yet, after less than a year as Justice Minister, Lenihan's short but cataclysmic term in finance had many elements of a Shakespearean tale - drama, pathos, comedy, farce and tragedy. From becoming minister just at a time when the country's finances were in freefall to his dysfunctional relationship with Brian Cowen.
That distrust would lead Lenihan to consider ousting his leader on a number of occasions, only to pull back at the last minute each time.
To the public, Lenihan was the rookie finance minister who got to grips with the crisis and who, in the absence of their Taoiseach, looked to him for reassurance and leadership. His terminal illness and his courageous attempt to battle it head-on became symbolic of where the country found itself.
Last year, Brian Lenihan - In Calm and Crisis was published in an attempt to address the issue of his legacy. A collection of essays pulled together by his aunt Mary O'Rourke, Noel Whelan and Dr Brian Murphy, the book was very much positive and supportive in tone. While meritorious in its own way, by its own admission it lacked much of the critical objectivity needed to fully assess the Lenihan legacy. An RTE documentary is to be broadcast this week, attempting to fill that void. But as someone who is himself writing a book on Brian's time in office, my view is that Lenihan's legacy is a mixed one.
As Michael Noonan put it on the day Lenihan died: "I always said he was very effective in controlling the budget which was totally out of control when he became minister. He was very thorough on the fiscal side.
"He was less successful in his banking policy. His decisions there were bad in my view but I would excuse him because many of his decisions were based on incomplete information or downright bad information," Noonan added.
I have compared Lenihan to Arthur Griffith. Both men faced great adversity and battled against the odds only to see their country implode before their premature deaths.
Lenihan, against strong opposition from within his own Cabinet, his own party and in the country, attempted to salvage the crumbling wreck of the State only to see it end up in a Troika bailout as his own health was deteriorating. Like Griffith and Collins, Lenihan's premature death has only added to his allure as a figure of historical and political significance.
Daniel McConnell is the co-author of an upcoming Mercier Press book on Brian Lenihan's tenure as finance minister.