Thursday 14 November 2019

Conor Lenihan... The man who came in from the cold

If Conor Lenihan ends up canvassing for Fianna Fáil votes on rainy nights in Roscommon, it will be a far car cry from his plush lifestyle in Moscow.

Globetrotter: Since 2011 Conor Lenihan's life has been between Moscow, London and Dublin. Photo: Tom Burke
Globetrotter: Since 2011 Conor Lenihan's life has been between Moscow, London and Dublin. Photo: Tom Burke
Patriarch's Ponds, Moscow
Lenihan dynasty: Brian Lenihan Senior with his sons Conor (centre) and Brian. Photo: Collins Photos
Conor Lenihan (brother) and Ann Lenihan (mother) of the late Brian Lenihan at St Mochta's Church, Porterstown for the removal of former Finance Minister.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

There is no doubt that Conor Lenihan faces a tough battle in trying to revive his political career in Roscommon, once the political stomping ground of his father Brian, and home of his grandfather PJ.

Some local people on the ground have suggested there will be a frosty political reception for the widely travelled emigré ex-minister if he hopes to win a seat for Fianna Fáil.

"Let him stay above in Dublin where he was all his life," said Strokestown hotelier Joe Murray on Tuesday (Lenihan actually spent much of childhood in Athlone).

"He hasn't a hope down here - he'll only embarrass himself further."

Conor Lenihan's planned comeback may have been greeted with scepticism, but his rivals would be foolish to underestimate him. Five members of his family, including his father, his grandfather, his brother and his aunt, Mary O'Rourke, have been elected as TDs, while others have been councillors.

"One thing he has going for him is that Fianna Fáil needs big names at the moment," says one long-time senior party strategist. "The ordinary party members may not like it, but the big names seem to appeal to the public."

Lenihan, now 52, is a seasoned political parachutist, who has been through this process before.

Eighteen years ago he landed on what seemed to be the inhospitable terrain of Dublin South West as a political novice.

When he first arrived in the mostly working-class constituency that includes Tallaght, it was said that the occasionally erratic politician did not even know the names of many of the areas.

But he won through without reaching the quota in the '97 election; and held his seat for 14 years until Fianna Fáil's Dublin obliteration in 2011.

By the time he had finished, he knew the constituency inside out, and was renowned as a hard worker on the stump.

The younger brother of the late Brian Lenihan, the Finance Minister during Ireland's economic collapse, believes Fianna Fáil has every chance of revival at the next election.

He tells Review: "The local elections showed that the party has recovered a lot of its popularity. If that shows through in the next general election, the party will be in a strong position."

The fact that he is not running back in Dublin South West is a sign that he feels he wouldn't have a hope there. The Fianna Fáil revival may be seen by senior party figures as a largely rural phenomenon.

The former TD says he is contemplating a return to Ireland after spending most of his time in the past four years in Russia.

He recently left his post with the billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who has been listed as the fourth richest person in Russia with a fortune of €11bn.

The Russian oligarch is renowned as having the largest collection of Fabergé eggs in the world. In a scene that could have been taken from a Dan Brown novel, Lenihan first met up with Vekselberg in Rome when he was showing his Fabergé egg collection in the Vatican Museum.

Lenihan's job in Moscow was to lure foreign companies to Russia's version of Silicon Valley.

"I now move mainly between Moscow, London and Ireland," Lenihan says.

If he ends up knocking on doors in Boyle and Roscommon in the rain at the next election, it will be a far cry from his salubrious life in the Russian capital.

In Moscow he has lived in a plush apartment in the affluent Patriarch's Ponds area and was driven by a chauffeur to his office on the 25th floor of Moscow's World Trade Centre.

Some of his more liberal Fianna Fáil colleagues may baulk at his admiration for the Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man not renowned for his respect for human rights.

"If you talk to ordinary Russians they are very appreciative of Putin," Lenihan tells Review.

"He has provided a strong degree of stability. The alternative to Putin could be a lot worse, either on the extreme left or the extreme right."

So what led Lenihan to leave Ireland after his party was hammered in the 2011 election? He has said there wasn't a great deal of sympathy for former Fianna Fáil ministers at home at the time, and tells Review his motivation to leave was partly financial.

"I was left with significant bills and felt that my best prospects of employment were abroad. Of course my experience as a minister (for Science Technology and Innovation) helped me in getting my job because I had been involved in trying to attract investment to Ireland."

Conor Lenihan learned his politics at the knee of his father, Brian. The connections with the Roscommon part of Athlone (known locally as the Connacht side) are strong.

As well as Brian Senior once holding the seat for Roscommon-Leitrim, Conor's grandfather, PJ Lenihan, set up the Hodson Bay Hotel in the county and managed the Gentex textile factory. He donated the land for Athlone Golf Club.

Brian Lenihan Senior moved the family to Dublin after he lost his seat in Roscommon and successfully relaunched his political career in the capital.

Conor seems to have had a somewhat wayward streak from a young age. One summer as a small boy, he and his aunt, Mary O'Rourke, had a "bit of a row" when he was staying in her house. She once recalled how he stormed out of the house, telling her in no uncertain terms that he was heading back to Dublin.

She expected him to come home quickly, but he failed to appear. The worried Mrs O'Rourke searched through the town in vain until she found the determined boy at the railway station, waiting to board the Dublin train.

Although he served in three ­different junior ministerial roles, including Overseas Development, Integration, and Science and Innovation, he has had a habit of getting into political scrapes. But, somehow, he seemed to emerge from them unscathed, partly as a result of a disarming charm.

As the Minister for Overseas Aid, he once told then Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins, who was campaigning for Turkish construction workers at the time, to "stick with the kebabs".

He also said he was "only waving" after Fine Gael accused him of giving Leo Varadkar a Nazi salute in the Dáil, and saying: "Heil Leo!"

Since he left office, he has had little involvement in politics. However, he has occasionally come out to defend the record of his late brother when his tenure as Finance Minister was questioned.

"Fianna Fáil has to accept a burden of blame for what happened to the country, but I think my brother's economic policy has been vindicated," he says. "Our recovery, no matter how imperfect it is, was built on the platform that he created." Although he worked hard in his constituency as a TD between 1997 and 2011, Conor believes members of the Dáil should be banned from making individual representations on behalf of constituents.

"Are TDs making the most productive use of their time if they are 40-50pc doing constituency work?" asks the former Deputy. "I think this was part of the problem before the economic crash. TDs did not see what was coming because their eyes were elsewhere."

Says Adrian Kavanagh, lecturer in political geography at Maynooth: ''Lenihan has picked one of toughest constituencies in the country for Fianna Fáil.''

Whether he succeeds or fails, this member of one of the most successful political dynasties is guaranteed to make the campaign more colourful.

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