Monday 23 October 2017

The life of Brian Lenihan... in their own words

Former finance minister, Brian Lenihan. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Former finance minister, Brian Lenihan. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
The new Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan TD, collects his seal of office from President Mary Mc Aleese .
Noel Whelan
Ray McSharry.
Mary O'Rourke signs the book of condolence for her nephew Brian Lenihan at his costituency office.
Alan Ahearne
Brian Lenihan talks to then French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde.
Brian Lenihan pictured in 2009 as Minister for Finance.
Brian with his wife Patricia and his mother Ann.
Brian Lenihan Jnr with his six-month-old baby daughter Clare on the morning after winning the bye-election in 1996.
Cover of Brian Lenihan in Calm and in Crisis.
Brian Lenihan Senior with his sons Conor Lenihan and Brian Lenihan (left). Photo: Collins Photos

John Spain, Books Editor

Today we publish exclusive extracts from Brian Lenihan: In Calm and Crisis, the first book to look at the life and career of Brian Lenihan Junior.

As Minister for Finance, Lenihan had to confront the greatest financial crisis ever faced by the State, all the while fighting the cancer that would lead to his untimely death at the age of 52.

The book gives new insight into Lenihan's courageous battle against the disease and into his political career, including the dramatic events leading to the bank guarantee and the bailout. Lenihan had not been involved in the economic decisions that led to the boom and bust. But as finance minister from May 2008, as the collapse began, he had to deal with the catastrophic mess created by others.

As the crisis worsened, he devised a four-year plan to rebalance the State's finances, putting the country before his own political future. He knew the decisions he had to take involving heavy cutbacks and extra taxation would be deeply unpopular.

In two tough budgets - and two emergency budgets - he achieved three quarters of the savings that had to be made. His plan was continued by the present government, which has benefited hugely from the progress he made.

Sadly, Brian Lenihan did not live to see the exit from the bailout.

But the contributors to this book make it clear that the exit was possible mainly because of the foundation that he had laid.

Contributors to the book - each of whom writes a chapter - include Christine Lagarde of the IMF, former President Mary McAleese, Patrick Honohan, governor of the Central Bank, Lenihan's economic adviser Alan Ahearne, former attorney general Paul Gallagher, former ­finance minister Ray MacSharry, and others who were involved in events at the time.

The book is edited by historian Brian Murphy, Lenihan's aunt and former minister Mary O'Rourke and political analyst Noel Whelan, who also contribute chapters.

They say that true courage is the ability to show grace under extreme pressure. That is something that Brian Lenihan did as he battled his terminal disease and tried to save the country at the same time. The memories of him in this book are truly inspiring.

Brian Lenihan: In Calm and Crisis is published today by Irish Academic Press at €24.95.

I caught him looking across at his wife Patricia. Tears came into his  eyes and tears came into her eyes

Mary McAleese

The then President was one of the first people to learn about the cancer diagnosis.  She describes the ­heartbreak she felt as she watched him cope with the disease.

The then President was one of the first people to learn about the cancer diagnosis. She describes the ­heartbreak she felt as she watched him cope with the disease.

It was devastating news. As soon as I heard it, I sat down and wrote him a letter and had it hand delivered to him. I probably was the first person to get a letter to him. The purpose of it was to tell him firstly that I had heard and that I knew that the outcome was not likely to be good and so the letter reflected that.

I wrote to reassure him that I would be praying for him. In my own life, there have been many times when we faced down a cul-de-sac and I didn't know any other way of navigating out around it except through the power of prayer. The purpose of the letter was to reassure Brian of my friendship and my prayer. He phoned me shortly after he got the letter and thanked me for it and said it meant a lot to him. Some time later, we had one of the occasional dinners we used to have in Áras an Uachtaráin where we invited about 50 people from different sectors and areas. Brian and his wife Patricia were among those invited that particular evening. One of the prerogatives of being President is that you get to decide who will sit beside you or at your table, at least, at events in the Áras. Brian was actually assigned the seat opposite me and Patricia was also at our table.

Patricia arrived, but, of course, Brian was late, very late. It was one of those days when there was some urgent political or economic development, which he had to deal with. Martin and myself got a chance over dinner to have a conversation with Patricia and it was clear she was devastated by the reality of his terminal diagnosis.

After the chat, we were all upset, strangely so in this formal setting. I was on the verge of tears and Patricia was also on the verge of tears. I knew from occasional chats with Brian himself that he had no illusions about the outcome of his illness. His power of analysis forced him to accept that reality, he knew the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against him. He had to accept it, although, of course, he didn't want to.

Brian arrived then at the dinner looking kind of flung together, as he sometimes did. As he sat down at the table opposite me, I caught him looking across at Patricia, appreciating quickly that she had been upset and tears came into his eyes and tears came into her eyes. I almost lost it myself. You could see that they were sharing this precious ­moment within this public ­gathering and there were going to be so few precious moments left.

Later that night, I took Brian aside and hugged him and just told him that we all loved him and I was just desperately sorry, really, really sorry to see this grand fellow facing death, but also facing, in a sense, into the death of his own ­reputation.

In all this, it was obvious Brian's reputation was going to take a battering, but I really do not think he gave two hoots about it. What he really cared about was the job he was doing and he cared that he was doing it to the best of his ability.

People stopped as Brian passed. I saw recognition, affection, concern in all their eyes

Noel Whelan

The political analyst and commentator, ­remembers the last time he met his friend and political colleague.

As we said our goodbyes outside the hotel, he to head to Leinster House and me to the courts, I took a last minute notion to walk with him over to Kildare Street.

I was concerned, I suppose, in part that he might not be physically up to getting there safely but concerned in reality, I think now, that I might not see him again.

As we strolled the few blocks I noticed that people stopped as he passed - in their eyes I saw recognition, then affection and then concern.

After that I didn't ring him but waited for him to ring me for fear I might be intruding. We spoke a couple of times on the phone.

They were short conversations in which he struggled to be animated and in which I dared not ask him whether he was at home or in the Mater because to hear he was at home would probably have been more upsetting.

Politics is an ungrateful business. . . but  history should not forget his contribution

Ray McSharry

The Former Minister for Finance on the debt of gratitude we owe Brian.

On December 15, 2013, Ireland exited the €85bn EU-IMF bailout programme. While a variety of Fine Gael and Labour politicians took to the airwaves to take credit for this progress, my thoughts turned to Brian Lenihan.

Sadly, Brian didn't live to see the day, but he more than anyone else was responsible for Ireland's swift exit of the bailout programme. Most of the heavy-lifting of financial adjustment had been carried out on Brian's watch and the austerity plan Enda Kenny's Government followed on assuming office was essentially Brian Lenihan's plan. Given the nature of our adversarial politics, it was hardly surprising that Brian's contribution went unacknowledged by the current Government. Politics is an ungrateful business and it moves on very quickly, but history will not and should not forget Brian Lenihan's strong contribution.

Brian said to me, without self-pity or fear: 'You know I only have a short time to live'

Paul Gallagher

The Former attorney , who gave the oration at Brian's  funeral, recalls the fall of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government in March 2011.

By this stage, it was clear that the government had only a very limited lifespan, as the Green Party had indicated its desire to leave government after the budgetary measures had been passed.

We went over to a nearby hotel together. Brian explained in detail and with clarity what he wished to achieve.

Brian's only focus was on the country's interest. He displayed no consideration for his personal convenience or comfort. Completing his public duty was his only objective.

The meeting was relaxed and convivial, but there was no mistaking his determination to achieve these objectives and his willingness to do whatever was required of him in order to achieve them.

Shortly before we got up to go, Brian spoke to me in words which are indelibly etched in my memory and which were said without self-pity or fear.

He said: 'You know I have only a very short time to live.' That was the first and only time he had ever said that. He had always conducted himself as if his own survival was never an issue. It was impossible to respond in any meaningful way.

I do not know what defines heroism or what makes people heroic and we should be very slow to use such an exalted term but for me that was the closest encounter I ever had with heroism.

My last words to my beloved nephew, Brian

Mary O'Rourke

The former minister and Brian's aunt recalls a poignant last phone call.

He always bore his illness stoically, but now (near the end) there was a dignified air about him as he slipped away from all who loved him.

He telephoned me one morning coming very near the end of May.

His voice had got fainter like the voice of a very older person and he said to me in a puzzled tone: 'Mary, I am just up from bed. I slept all night and I am so tired, I want to go back to bed again.'

I said to him, trying to be cheerful: 'Well sleep is good for one' and then I quoted the line from Macbeth: 'Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care.' Brian said to me: 'Say that line again, Mary' and I did and he said: 'You were always a good teacher.'

Those were the last words I had with Brian Lenihan, but his life has marked what remains of my life in a deep and personal way.

I think a lot about him and on more than one occasion, I have distinctly felt his presence with me, almost in a physical sense that he was there to be a support, a love and a help to me.

On the occasions when it happened to me, it has not been frightening; rather it has been of a vibrant consoling nature.

The Fianna Fáil veteran and sister of Brian's father, Brian senior, is still disturbed that her nephew's role in the now flowering recovery has been so neglected.

"It amazes me that in all of the turmoil since the present Government took office that apart from one or two references to Brian, they have never seen fit to say to the Irish people 'we are following the four-year National Recovery Plan, as laid out by Brian Lenihan'. I hold and treasure that plan.

Rather, the present Government would wish to denigrate the previous government and in many instances they have grounds on which they can do so. However, I am always disturbed that Micheál Martin, as leader of the party, never stands up for Brian or defends his memory in Dáil Éireann."

By the time Brian arrived at the Department of Finance, the Irish banking system was doomed

Alan Ahearne

The economist, who Brian appointed as his advisor, on the impossible task he  faced in Finance.

By the time Brian Lenihan arrived at the Department of Finance in May 2008, the Irish banking system was doomed. Over the previous five years, the domestic Irish banks had ballooned their loan books to a staggering €400bn from €150bn in 2003.

Most of this new credit was extended to the property sector, including a nine-fold increase in lending for speculative development and a doubling in mortgage lending. Lenihan remarked that unlike other capital cities around Europe, there were no foreign buyers of property in Dublin during the boom years - a tell-tale sign that real estate was overvalued.

The banks funded this lethal expansion in credit by borrowing. They attracted corporate deposits from all over the world and sold large amounts of bonds and commercial paper. They pumped this money into the Irish economy, thereby fuelling a surge in consumer and government spending. Ireland's banking bosses gambled everything on the expectation of a soft landing in the property sector and continued benign conditions in international funding markets. Few people shouted stop. The domestic property crash and international financial crisis revealed in the starkest terms the recklessness of the banks' business models and the failures of those tasked with regulating the banking system. Now the chickens were coming home to roost. Ireland's banks were about to hit the wall.

Lenihan would spend nearly the next three years performing radical surgery on the Irish banking system. The international experience with systemic banking crises provided some guidance, but the complexity of the emergency facing Lenihan was unparalleled. Ireland's banks were unusually large, with loans standing at more than twice the country's total annual income.

Decisive, courageous and difficult decisions would be required to stave off disaster.

I credit my dear friend Brian for  having taken difficult decisions, many of which laid the basis for Ireland's recovery

Christine Lagarde

Now head of the IMF, ­Lagarde was finance minister of France when the boom in  Ireland collapsed. In her chapter in the book she praises the way Brian tackled the crisis.

Crises and challenges are defining moments in human history. They tend to foster the emergence of natural-born leaders. Economic crises are no different. Once in a while, a true leader emerges from the ashes of economic calamity. Brian was one of those beacons in the dark night of a macroeconomic crisis . . . he took on the mantle of leadership and political responsibility out of a sense of commitment to his nation, not out of vanity or interest in personal gain.

Like many others, I credit my dear friend Brian for having taken difficult decisions, many of which laid the basis for Ireland's recovery.

Brian and I spoke regularly during those crucial months. He was always honest and open about Ireland's situation. This helped Ireland's partners, and Ireland itself. Now that the situation was being transparently discussed, Ireland's economic partners could develop realistic expectations and propose a pragmatic set of solutions.

This act of transparency meant that precious time was not being wasted on discussing fantasist solutions to obscure problems, but rather, when the rubber met the road, Ireland and its partners had a clear vision of the path ahead.

Three years on, Brian is increasingly seen as a model of aptitude, leadership, and pan-European collaboration.

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