Sunday 18 August 2019

'My father had a great regard for Haughey, they were FF young guns'

Conor Lenihan lifts the lid on his relationships with his brother, father and Charles Haughey

Conor Lenihan and his mother Ann
Conor Lenihan and his mother Ann
Mary O'Rourke,TD with her two nephews Brian Lenihan, (left) the then Minister for Justice and his brother Conor then a Junior Minister Conor Lenihan,TD at the 2009 Fianna Fail Autumn 'Think-In' Co. Wicklow
Charles Haughey

Miriam Donohoe

Conor and Brian Lenihan were like chalk and cheese. The younger brother is hyper, gregarious and full on, whilst his older sibling was serious, precocious and, in the words of Conor, "more sedentary in his pursuits." They even looked different, with Conor inheriting the fairer looks of his mother, Ann, whilst Brian was tall and dark, the image of his late father, Brian Snr.

"Yes, we were polar opposites as people," said Conor. "Even our approach to politics was totally different. Although he was four years older than me, we were always great friends and he was very protective of me growing up - partly because we had lost a brother who came in between."

But what both men had in common was their political pedigree and their passion for Ireland. From a staunch Fianna Fail family, both followed their grandfather Patrick, father Brian and aunt Mary O'Rourke into the Dail.

"One of my earliest memories of Brian is when I was about six and we shared a room in my grandfather's house in Athlone on holidays. One night, I asked Brian about Irish history and I got 100-year nightly instalments, starting with the arrival of the Normans and the Vikings. It was an extraordinary lesson and is probably why I studied history in UCD.

"He was a natural teacher and able to explain complex issues very well. That is why he did so well in Finance. He could explain things to the public."

Although they were close and "brothers on the same team", there was intense rivalry too, Conor admits.

"He got elected to the Dail a year before me and he got made a minister before me. I was meant to be made a minister in 2002 but it didn't come through because Bertie didn't fast-track the exit of two senior ministers who resisted being moved on."

Conor did go on to serve in three different portfolios as a minister of state in his 14-year career until he lost his seat in 2011, but his brother reached loftier political heights. He was Minister for Finance at the height of the banking crisis and steered the Banking Guarantee in September 2008.

Sitting in the study of the comfortable family home in Castleknock where the Lenihans grew up, just a stone's throw from the gates of the Phoenix Park, Conor reveals for the first time the role he himself played in the days and weeks leading up to the guarantee, working as an intermediary between Brian and senior banking executives at home and abroad.

"They were crazy days, with crisis discussions going on day and night. A number of people in banking and business were giving me messages to pass to Brian. I spent a lot of time with Brian at the time in his office, talking about the crisis and giving advice."

He declines to say who he was in contact with or reveal the messages that he was asked to pass on.

"My last contact with Brian just before the guarantee was announced was at 8pm the night before. He was in lockdown with officials then. But the guarantee was the only option, in my view, and I think that has been proven right."

Lenihan is now living between Moscow and London and is in Dublin this week to launch his new book on Charles Haughey, Haughey Prince of Power. His visits home are always a reminder of Brian Jnr, who died from pancreatic cancer over four years ago, and his father Brian Snr, who died 20 years ago. He admits that he still misses both men, who had such a huge influence on his life.

Brian Jnr's cancer diagnosis just before Christmas in 2009 came as a huge shock to the entire family.

"But there was no discussion with him about dying or what might happen. He wanted to be positive about his treatment and he didn't dwell too much on it."

However, Brian did start giving Conor advice he wouldn't normally give, as "he knew he wouldn't be around for too long."

Brian's decision and ability to keep working until near the end astounded many.

"It was important for Brian to do the right thing by the country but he also didn't want people to collapse in an emotional heap about his illness, especially his family, and he wanted to carry on as normal for as long as possible.

"When I would ask how he was, he'd brush it off and say he was getting chemo or radiotherapy but beyond that he didn't want to talk about it."

The brothers had one really bad row during Brian's illness. Brian Cowen was under pressure as leader and Conor reveals that Brian wanted to bid for the leadership, even though he was very ill.

"He felt he could become an El Cid for the party. (El Cid was the legendary and fearless medieval Spanish leader who, despite having been killed, was put up on a horse to ride into battle). He was convinced he could have helped minimise the losses the party suffered, even for a short term."

However, in an RTE Radio interview with Sean O'Rourke in January 2011, Brian denied he had leadership ambitions and declared support for Cowen. The following week, Cowen won a vote of confidence in his leadership.

Micheal Martin, who voted against, resigned as Minister for Foreign Affairs, but became leader when Cowen eventually resigned.

"I was furious with Brian for his interview. I let loose and cursed at him vociferously. I told him he had blown it and that he was very foolish. It wasn't just me, a number of backbenchers who were actively supporting him were deeply disappointed. But we didn't fall out for long."

Lenihan said that the taxpayer got better value from his brother precisely because he was ill.

"He had to cut back on all the unnecessary stuff that senior politicians shouldn't be doing; he concentrated solely on the financial crisis and went about that in a very determined way. He set the foundation for recovery and was very proud he was clocking in more hours more efficiently because of his illness."

Lenihan's book is surprisingly sympathetic to Charles Haughey, especially given what emerged about his finances and the fact that he shafted Brian Snr during the 1990 presidential election.

"I tried to be impartial and to give people a broader perspective. This isn't a book that is out to get Haughey. Despite everything that emerged, I don't think we should lose sight of the contribution he made. He was responsible for the IFSC, Temple Bar and he redeveloped Government Buildings. He was visionary."

Lenihan insists that his father and Charles Haughey did not fall out, despite his sacking as Minister for Defence, something that is covered in detail in the book.

"My father had a great regard for Haughey. They soldiered and fought elections and were the young guns in the 1960s, running Fianna Fail and modernising the country. He regarded him very highly in intellectual terms. Dad was a hugely forgiving man. He never held grudges and he remained essentially on good terms with Haughey. They went out for lunch on one occasion after the sacking."

But how can Lenihan not feel that the country was hard done by, given what emerged about Haughey and the fact that he used money raised for Brian Lenihan Snr's liver transplant for his own purposes?

"I cover this in the book. Haughey was very good to my father when he was ill. Haughey was a very caring person, he was very good to people he respected and liked and people who supported him.

"But yes, Dad did contest the 1990 Presidency as a way of exiting the Haughey government. He said to me he had an uneasy feeling that Haughey was becoming 'more venal'. He said he felt the roof was going to fall in."

Lenihan called Charles Haughey's son Sean this week to invite him to his book launch, which, as it happens, he didn't attend.

"It was a very friendly conversation. There is no animosity between the Lenihans and the Haugheys," said Lenihan.

Within a month of becoming unemployed after losing his seat in the last election Lenihan, a former journalist and Digicel employee, found himself working for one of Russia's wealthiest oligarchs,Victor Vekselberg, on a mega salary and living in Moscow's most sought-after suburbs.

He was recommended by a friend for the job and met Vekselberg in Rome, where he was showing his multi-million euro Fabergé eggs collection in the Vatican Museum.

Lenihan didn't know what salary to ask for.

"So he asked how much do ministers get paid in Ireland. I gave him a salary range from ministers of state to Taoiseach. He offered me a figure that was many multiples of the Taoiseach's salary. I couldn't refuse."

The three-year contract was to work on the Skolkovo project just outside Moscow, an innovation and research project. Lenihan raised €1.2bn investment for it and finished recently. He is now on the board of San Leon Energy, a specialist oil and gas company and is planning to work with Irish business advising them on exporting abroad.

He is married for a second time and has three children from his first marriage age 16, 13 and eight and two from his second aged five years and eight months. He guards his private life and says he doesn't want to discuss it.

But he does refer to his family in the preface of the book, saying: "I would like to thank my wife Nikita for her support, without which, this book could not have been written. My children Brian, Jack, Alex, Aoife and Patrick Joseph, are a real source of inspiration, as are the mothers that truly rear them."

Recently he was approached by some members of the Fianna Fail organisation in Roscommon about contesting the general election in the Roscommon-Galway constituency. Nothing came of the contact.

"But I am prepared to serve in public life again. My door is open," said Lenihan.

"But experience since I left public life has been a very satisfying one for me. I would much prefer to spend more time in Ireland but the nature of the work means there is more work outside Ireland for me at the moment."

Sunday Independent

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