| 17.4°C Dublin

Brian ploughed a lonely furrow but he always had his family

It was usually quite a jolly photograph every year when the Minister for Finance posed for the cameras on the morning of the Budget, surrounded by his smiling family.

Although Bertie was separated from his wife Miriam by the time he was anointed finance minister in 1991, he famously posed with his two young daughters, Georgina and Cecelia. And the tradition carried on up to and including Brian Cowen who stood with his wife Mary and daughters Sinead and Meadhbh when he took over the finance department in 2004.

But then Brian Lenihan arrived into the Department of Finance in the dark days of 2008, and the tradition ended. Instead he cut a solitary figure on Budget Day, brandishing the bound document on the steps of Government Buildings with no sign of his wife Patricia or two young children Tom and Claire.

Some observers believed that Brian's decision to go solo was due to the extremely grim times that were in it. By the time he came to deliver his first Budget, it was against a backdrop of appalling economic collapse and financial uncertainty, and a smiling family photo would've jarred with a jittery public.

But those closer to Brian were adamant that one of the main reasons he chose not to involve his family in his political life was sensitivity towards the position of his wife.

Patricia Ryan is a circuit court judge, and so it was important that her career as a member of the judiciary did not become entangled with the political system -- also his teenage children were reluctant to put themselves in the spotlight.

And, in fairness, both Brian and Patricia were scrupulous about keeping Brian's public role as a cabinet minister and his private life as husband and father completely separate. The couple shielded Tom and Claire from the glare of the cameras. They took low-key holidays in France.

Their son Tom had already begun to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather Brian senior by studying law, and he had recently finished his first-year exams in Trinity, while Claire had been due to sit her Junior Cert this summer.

However, without a supportive family in the background, the lonely furrow ploughed by this finance minister at a time of acute crisis would've been unbearable.

For he was an extremely sociable soul who was handed a job which often meant taking sole responsibility for tough decisions on where the budgetary axe must fall. And yet he was rarely short of company around Leinster House -- he would often voluntarily chat with political journalists in the bar or canteen, even during the highly fraught final months of the Cowen administration when members of the fourth estate were regarded with hostility by many of his government colleagues.

Also, he was, as one colleague put it, "just like his father in the way he'd be out and about all the time, visiting groups and businesses and so on. He loved meeting people and it'd often be all hours when he'd get home".

So, given the extraordinary double collapse of the economy and the banking system which came -- as he plaintively put it -- "to a shuddering end" almost as soon as he was handed the finance ministry, a support network around him was crucial.

His most vocal supporter in Leinster House was his aunt, Mary O'Rourke, who defended him at every opportunity when the mud began to fly, and also his brother and fellow TD, Conor.

But because he chose to keep his own family at a remove from his gruelling job, Brian gathered an extended family of loyal and closely-knit staff around him, such as his astute special adviser Cathy Herbert.

But with many decisions the buck stopped at his desk alone as he struggled to halt the country's slide into economic ruin -- he introduced an emergency Budget in 2009, he oversaw the setting up of NAMA and, most crucially, it was Brian Lenihan who picked up the phone on the morning of September 30, 2008, to inform his European counterparts that Ireland had just thrown up a blanket guarantee around its failing banks.

And it was Brian himself who provided a stark glimpse into just how lonely his path could be in an interview given two months ago, in which he vividly described how he felt when the IMF bailout was hammered out last November.

"I've a very vivid memory of going to Brussels on the final Monday to sign the agreement and being on my own at the airport and looking at the snow gradually thawing and thinking to myself, this is terrible. No Irish minister has ever had to do this before," he said.

It could be a lonely road, but there in the background at all times, his quietly loyal family walked with him.

Irish Independent