Friday 23 March 2018

Sam, he told me, I'm not going home to die

BRIAN Lenihan ushered me to a quiet corner of a cafe in Leinster House last month to put me right about his views on Brian Cowen.

We also chatted about family matters, religion and who-was-doing-what-to-whom in politics before he zeroed in on the economy.

"It's quite simple, really," said the former Minister for Finance. "If we get rid of the budget deficit, the banking problems will fade away."

It could have been Mr Micawber, the character in Charles Dickens's 'David Copperfield', who said that misery results from spending more than you earn.

That was the last time I saw him and he didn't look good after another bout of chemotherapy, but the conversation was as unpredictable and exhilarating as ever.

Every conversation in Leinster House covers the latest rumour but with Brian Lenihan theology and philosophy arose as regularly as gossip.

He had taken issue with an article I had written based on an interview where he had criticised Brian Cowen's leadership of Fianna Fail.

Yes, he said making direct eye contact, leading Fianna Fail was a long-held ambition -- and he didn't have to say it would be unrequited aspiration.

We quickly moved on to discuss John Wesley, hymns in the Methodist Church and the French finance minister, Christine Lagarde.

She always seemed to be flirting with him when they met at EU summits and I asked him why he always spoke to her in French although she had flawless English.

He laughed and said that making friends in high places in Europe was not an indulgence but a pre-requisite for getting them to understand our difficulties.

But he had a real talent for friendship that followed his natural courtesy, elegant manners and infectious enthusiasm.

He spoke matter-of-factly about his illness, as if it was another abstract problem to be managed.

But it was clear that the cancer he had fought and held at bay for 17-months was gaining ground -- and he seemed to have accepted that stoically, without even a hint of fear or self-pity.

We spoke for about 30 minutes and when he stood up to leave I noticed he was clearly in pain and had some difficulty walking away.

As he left the cafe, I recalled an earlier meeting with him 17 months before, after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Brian Lenihan, like his late father, was a very sophisticated man and avoided any displays of mawkish sentimentality, so there was an awkward moment when we spoke about his illness.

We both knew that the percentage chances of him beating pancreatic cancer were cruelly slim and I said that many in his position would not continue in such a stressful job.

Many people, I suggested, would have chosen to spend their time with family while coming to terms with such a grim diagnosis and the treatment that can cause exhaustion and sickness.

Brian Lenihan leaned across the table: "Sam," he said quietly. "I am not going to go home and die."

The flag over Leinster House was flying at half mast yesterday in respect for the TD who had finally succumbed to cancer in his home in the early hours.

It seemed fitting for a man to whom patriotism and public service was worn as casually and naturally as his weekend clothes.

I first met him in the late 1980s but didn't really get to know him until after he won a by-election in Dublin West after his father died in 1996.

It was clear to his colleagues, as it was to the Opposition, that he was destined for high office, but the party leader, Bertie Ahern, was in no rush to promote him.

He waited until 2002 to be appointed a minister of state and in 2007 Bertie Ahern promoted him to cabinet as Minister for Justice.

His friends and family were convinced that inverted snobbery was the reason for Mr Ahern's reluctance to promote Brian Lenihan.

The northside Dublin Taoiseach was suspicious of a bar library know-all with a Cambridge education who spoke Latin and read Proust.

He was an able Minister for Justice who was very reluctant to move when Brian Cowen promoted him to Finance after Mr Ahern resigned as Taoiseach.

He was literally just weeks in the job when the banking crisis blew up -- a rookie minister in charge at Finance when the biggest economic crisis in the history of the State struck.

And when he was getting on top of his brief, he felt pains in his stomach and was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

It was his innate qualities as a man as much as an acknowledgement of his administrative talents that won him the respect of his peers in politics.

His commitment to civil servants and advisers who worked with him was rewarded by their extraordinary loyalty.

He loved his family but never used his domestic life to further his political ambitions.

He had a great sense of fun that could lighten up dismal company in a dark room -- and it is that Brian Lenihan I will miss most.

Brian Lenihan had that most elusive quality of likeability and, added to decency and kindness, made him one of the most successful individuals in public life.

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