Wednesday 18 September 2019

Too young he left us, his mission unfulfilled

Lenihan: warrior politician, patriot, philosopher, a good and honest man


The untimely death of Brian Lenihan has given rise not only to a large measure of national mourning for a man who will be remembered as a true patriot who served his country in the manner of a great public servant, but also this weekend, to an appraisal of his legacy as Minister for Finance, already under way, which many now expect will stand the test of time.

The high regard in which Mr Lenihan was held by the people will be in evidence at the removal of his remains, which will lie in repose from 10am tomorrow at Jennings Funeral Home in Blanchardstown, Dublin, before removal to St Mochta's Church in Porterstown, arriving at 6pm.

There is expected to be a huge outpouring of warmth and sympathy for the late Mr Lenihan's wife, Patricia, his children, Tom and Clare, his mother, brothers, sisters and extended family, at the funeral mass at 11am on Tuesday, which will be followed by a private burial.

The deeply held affection for Mr Lenihan arises out of the manner in which he bore his illness, pancreatic cancer which was to prove terminal, since it was diagnosed and then made public in December 2009, until his tragic death on Friday morning last aged just 52.

It was not reported at the time, but can now be disclosed that Mr Lenihan was last year offered an opportunity to travel to the US for a medical procedure that may have assisted him somewhat as he fought his illness with great bravery.

He was Minister for Finance at the time. He considered the offer for a short while, but while the operation might have helped him, it was unlikely to save his life.

He turned it down to perform instead what he felt to be his primary duty -- to lead his office, and effectively the country, at a time of economic crisis without precedent.

It would seem that from the moment of his diagnosis, Mr Lenihan decided he would dedicate his remaining, then unknown, period of time, in the service of his country.

He remained steadfast in that stoic approach right up to what he knew would be the final weeks of his life.

For example, on Saturday, May 14 last, although clearly unwell, he took it upon himself to contact the Sunday Independent to express an opinion on a decision by the new Government to apply a levy on private pensions.

In that conversation, Mr Lenihan sought to present himself as upbeat and determined while he passed judgement on the controversial decision of his successor, Michael Noonan of Fine Gael.

"Who is going to invest in Ireland if their funds are effectively stolen by the Government. I can't get over it," he said.

It was equally clear then that Mr Lenihan was not motivated by party politics, but by concern at what he genuinely felt was a decision that would adversely affect the country. Indeed, quite recently, he told a close friend: "The thing that upsets me is that I will not live to see my country recover."

Mr Lenihan remained as actively engaged as he possibly could as his end drew closer. It will come as a comfort to his family and friends, as well as to his many admirers, that he passed away peacefully on Friday morning.

It is known that Mr Lenihan, although greatly fatigued, had no need for pain-killing drugs such as morphine, as many cancer sufferers do, and that he spent his final days and nights quite restful.

If Mr Lenihan was to be upset at some of the subsequent decisions taken by the new Government, it is a testimony to the policies he had pursued as Minister for Finance, that the Fine Gael/Labour Government is, to a large extent, pursuing those same policies, however right or wrong they may prove to be.

A definitive decision on his legacy must be postponed, perhaps for several years, but already further light is being cast on some of the more difficult decisions he had to take.

For example, on the Tonight with Vincent Browne Show on TV3 last Friday, the Governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan disclosed that Mr Lenihan had an expectation that negotiations with the EU-IMF on a financial bailout would be discussed over a longer period of time, and that "something more sophisticated" in terms of a financial programme would be agreed involving "more of a risk-sharing element."

In fact, according to Mr Honohan, Mr Lenihan was "crestfallen" that, even after the EU-IMF deal had been agreed, he had been prevented by that authority in his intention for Ireland to default on unguaranteed bank bondholders. "I think he was quite discouraged by that," Mr Honohan said.

The Central Bank governor also provided further evidence as to the manner in which the EU-IMF handed down a diktat to Mr Lenihan, who felt he was in no position to resist. The ruinous 5.8 per cent interest rate on the bailout funds, for example, was simply handed down without negotiation. The new Government, which had been severely critical of Mr Lenihan, is now coming to terms with such diktat.

While his legacy may, eventually, stand the test of time, there are many this weekend who remain convinced, and are supported in that conviction by the available evidence, that Mr Lenihan did not always get it right.

His decision, with the then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, with whom he subsequently developed a fraught relationship, to issue a blanket bank guarantee in September, 2008, will in time be held up as one such decision he got wrong.

In truth, Mr Lenihan was effectively bounced into that decision by the banks themselves who then, and for a long period subsequently, withheld from him the true scale of their catastrophic debts; and also by the European Central Bank, whose president, Jean-Claude Trichet, called him late at night to warn him to protect the banks "at all costs".

A decision to later renew that guarantee, alongside the decision to set up the National Asset Management Agency to remove from the banks bad property-related assets, also proved fateful.

Mr Lenihan had more, although by no means complete, success in grappling with the massive budget deficit. It was his manner in trying to explain the scale of the budgetary crisis, alongside the bank crisis, which caused the people to at least appreciate his efforts, as opposed to the manner of Mr Cowen, more gruff and less engaging, which led the electorate in February this year to exact severe retribution on Fianna Fail.

It is a measure of the esteem in which Mr Lenihan was held that he was the only Fianna Fail politician returned to the 31st Dail in Dublin and its greater area.

Of all of the tributes that have come pouring in to a dazzling politician and thoroughly decent man, perhaps the most fitting was posted in an anonymous contribution to the online edition of The Irish Times.

A quote from President Theodore Roosevelt, it perhaps best summed up the career of Mr Lenihan as Minister for Finance:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Sunday Independent

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