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'Mac' is one of the few who know how Lenihan feels now

WHEN Brian Lenihan wanted to put public representatives on the boards of the country's failing banks last year, he turned to Ray MacSharry and Alan Dukes, who are among the handful of men who have served as finance ministers during a fiscal crisis and know how Lenihan must feel today.

It is fair to say that MacSharry belongs to an even smaller group of men who took the measures that Lenihan knows he must take if the country is to recover from the present crisis.

Today, MacSharry is lauded by corporate Ireland for the cuts he implemented in the 1980s to restore the country's finances to order, but his career has witnessed many highs and lows including a rapid rise to the top of Irish life under his mentor Charlie Haughey, a swift fall when he was caught up in a bugging scandal, and then redemption when he became Minister for Finance for a second time in the late 1980s and finally took control of the country's finances.

His subsequent career included a successful stint as a European Union commissioner and senior posts at several Irish companies.

The Sligo-born haulier entered the Dail in 1969 and was later appointed Minister for Agriculture before becoming Minister for Finance and Tanaiste in 1982 during one of Haughey's many short-lived governments.

The non-drinker and non-smoker was forced to resign from office a year latter after becoming embroiled in a bugging scandal that claimed several high profile party members.

The disgrace was temporary and Haughey brought back his pugnacious ally from the European parliament in 1987 to serve as Finance Minister once again.

This time, MacSharry used his position to push through perhaps the toughest cuts ever imposed by an Irish government and earned himself the sobriquet Mac the Knife after the Bertold Brecht song of the same name in the 'Threepenny Opera'.

With inflation running close to 20pc and about 0.5pc of the population emigrating every year, the uncompromising MacSharry faced a social situation every bit as bad as the one today, although the economic situation was probably marginally better with the deficit hovering at around 13pc of gross national product at the end of 1986 -- less than today's ratios and at a time when the global economy was picking up. MacSharry's solution was an economic plan called the Way Forward that used savings suggested by Colm McCarthy and others in 1987 to ruthlessly slash public spending.

Hospital wards were closed, school classes ballooned but the measures worked and the budget deficit fell to just 2.4pc of GNP by 1991, something that saved the country from the default that many had predicted.

His period in office was followed by a brief stint as governor of the European Investment Bank and later as European Commissioner for Agriculture where he successfully negotiated key changes to the Common Agricultural Policy -- something that had seemed every bit as intractable as Ireland's budgetary problems earlier in the decade. Success did not come without a price and his abrasive and stubborn manner was often unpopular with colleagues both here in Ireland and in Europe.

His foray into the private sector has probably been the most successful of any Irish politician and his many posts have included chairman of Ryanair and Eircom as well as periods as a director of the Bank of Ireland and IL&P, Jefferson Smurfit and Green Properties.

Irish Independent