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Saturday 16 December 2017

An honest, patriotic man,he was dealt a cruel hand

Brian Lenihan's commitment to the public good was never questioned by opponents, writes John Cooney

Last year Brian Lenihan became the
first member of FF to give the Michael
Collins oration at Beal na mBlath
Last year Brian Lenihan became the first member of FF to give the Michael Collins oration at Beal na mBlath

BRIAN Lenihan, the deputy leader of Fianna Fail, who negotiated the ECB-IMF bailout last year as Minister for Finance while struggling stoically with cancer, died yesterday, aged 52.

News of his death triggered a spontaneous national upsurge of emotion from all shades of political persuasion, the judiciary, academia and holders of public office -- from President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Enda Kenny down to members of the general public.

In a remarkable recognition of Mr Lenihan's stature as the most senior member of a respected political dynasty, assessments of his contribution to public life were suspended amid unanimous emphasis on his personal qualities of charm and likeability and his dedicated patriotism.

Mr Lenihan is survived by his wife, Patricia, nee Ryan, a judge of the Circuit Court; his children, Tom and Claire; brothers Conor, former Minister of State and ex-TD for Dublin South West, Niall and Paul; sister Anita; his mother, Ann; and his aunt, Mary O'Rourke, a former long-serving government minister and senator.

Born in Dublin on May 21, 1959, Brian Joseph Lenihan was the first of five children of the late Brian Lenihan, a major politician of the Jack Lynch and Charles J Haughey eras and unsuccessful presidential candidate against Mary Robinson in 1990.

His grandfather, Patrick Lenihan, a businessman and hotelier in Athlone, represented the Westmeath-Longford constituency from 1965 until his death in 1970.

The product of a Jesuit schooling, the young Brian was educated at Belvedere College, where he became head prefect and was marked out as an outstanding student with a well-stocked academic bent of mind, which he combined with an outward-going and genial personality.

His brain power accompanied him to Trinity College, Dublin, where he merited the status of a foundation scholar, taking a first-class LLB degree.

An academic career in law appeared to beckon when he pursued further studies at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, obtaining a first-class LLM.

Called to the Irish Bar in 1984 as a member of the Honourable Society of the King's Inns, he began lecturing in law at Trinity College, Dublin.

From 1992 to 1995, he was a member of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal and the Garda Siochana Complaints Appeal Board. In 1997, he became a senior counsel.

Brian Lenihan was first elected to the Dail in April 1996 in the by-election caused by the death of his father, who had been a deputy in Dublin West since 1977.

Although Noel Dempsey, Fianna Fail's director of elections in the contest, reportedly did not expect his party to hold the seat, Mr Lenihan secured 252 more first-preference votes than Joe Higgins and was elected on the 11th count.

He consolidated his hold on the seat at the 1997 general election and it was widely speculated that the newly elected Taoiseach Bertie Ahern would fast track Mr Lenihan into a ministry on account of his family name and abilities.

But Mr Ahern, sensitive to continuing reports of having been at odds with the Lenihans during Brian senior's 1990 presidential election campaign, appointed Brian junior chairman of the all-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution.

In this post, Mr Lenihan consulted the various interest groups in Irish society, including the leaders of the Catholic Church, which expressed strong opposition to what it regarded as "the liberal agenda", particularly in relation to abortion.

Numerous reports of the Constitution Review Group which he appointed remain on the shelf, rather than the statute book.

In 2002, when Mr Ahern won a second term for his Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat coalition, there was renewed anticipation that Mr Lenihan would be promoted to Cabinet.

Instead, however, he was appointed Minister of State for Children, which gave him access to Cabinet, but not a vote. He combined these duties with his role as a Minister of State in the Department of Education and Science.

Faced with mounting pressure to hold a referendum to give children equal rights under the Constitution, Mr Lenihan announced changes to the adoption laws and increased the numbers of gardai employed in vetting childcare workers.

According to the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, he "made a major contribution to the advancement of legal recognition for same-sex couples".

After 11 years in the Dail, promotion to government finally came in June 2007 when Mr Ahern, now mired in controversy at the tribunals in Dublin Castle, unexpectedly won a third term as Taoiseach and duly appointed Mr Lenihan Minister of Justice.

ALTHOUGH he was a potentially reformist Justice Minister with exceptional legal expertise, Mr Lenihan was the surprise choice of the incoming Taoiseach Brian Cowen as Finance Minister, after Mr Ahern stepped down in May 2008.

A month after his appointment, Mr Lenihan admitted that he had the "misfortune" to take the job as the economy went into its deepest crisis since the Depression of the 1930s.

His period in the Department of Finance was dominated by the growing economic crisis. Over 14 months, he introduced three severe Budgets, initiated the bank guarantee, nationalised Anglo Irish Bank and created NAMA.

In the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse, Irish banks were on the verge of collapse as credit dried up. Mr Lenihan grappled to come to terms with the scale of their debts, which were still largely concealed by the banks.

Particularly controversial was his decision in September 2008 to pledge the State's €440bn deposit-guarantee scheme to Irish-owned banks and building societies. Although Mr Lenihan insisted that this action helped avert a financial "nuclear winter", this proved to be a dire decision that linked the State's economic future with the debt-laden financial system.

His removal in the January 2009 Budget of medical cards from most people over the age of 70 provoked massive public outrage. This led, three months later, to an emergency Budget, overriding the measures previously announced and amounting to a further €3.25bn of increases in taxes and reductions in spending programmes.

In December 2009, Mr Lenihan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This required intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment at the Mater Private Hospital.

When his illness was made public by TV3 -- before he even had time for privacy with his family -- Mr Lenihan bravely gave interviews in which he pledged to continue in office for as long as his health allowed.

By November 2010, with investors and speculators increasingly distrustful of Irish sovereign and banking debt, Mr Lenihan felt compelled to seek a bailout for the State from the ECB and the IMF.

"I have a very vivid memory of going to Brussels on the final Monday and being on my own at the airport and looking at the snow gradually thawing and thinking to myself, 'This is terrible,'" Mr Lenihan said in a BBC radio interview earlier this year.

"No Irish minister had ever had to do this before," he said. "Now hell was at the gates."

But the repeated denial by the Government that this was happening enraged public opinion. The undue secrecy was to seal the fate of Mr Cowen's government, especially when the punitive terms of the bailout were finally revealed, with the loss of the country's 90 years of economic sovereignty

SINKING ever deeper in unpopularity, Mr Cowen resigned as leader of Fianna Fail in January but stayed on as Taoiseach. In spite of ill health, Mr Lenihan put his name forward in the ensuing ballot but lost out to the former Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin.

In the general election last February, Mr Lenihan, although increasingly visibly frail, did not take the opportunity of a golden ministerial handshake, as did Mr Cowen and other senior ministers, by retiring from the Dail. Instead, he opted to seek re-election.

As Fianna Fail was swept from power for the first time since 1997, Mr Lenihan retained his seat in Dublin West, the only former minister to win a seat for the decimated party in Dublin.

Mr Martin named Mr Lenihan as the party's finance spokesman, even as he continued to battle cancer.

Just last month, Mr Lenihan laughed off rumours that his condition had deteriorated and even that he was dead.

"I'm still here," he told the 'Evening Herald' as he smiled for the camera from his hospital bed.

Just hours before the announcement yesterday of Mr Lenihan's death -- with his family by his bedside at his home in Dublin -- Alan McQuaid, chief economist at Bloxham Stockbrokers in Dublin, described him as "an excellent communicator who was eventually overwhelmed by circumstances".

He added: "In the end, he was let down by a lack of expertise and maybe some bad advice."

Mr Lenihan's epitaphs were voiced by the governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, who said he "acted patriotically to stabilise the State's finances in the face of unprecedented pressures", and by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who described him as "a decent man, a fine public representative".

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