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Lenihan story deserves new chapter

Before we rush headlong into this brave new world, with this election that is going to fix everything, and this new leader of Fianna Fail that's going to make a whole new party of it, let us pause for a moment to consider what just happened.

Because it all happened very quickly, and in our haste to move onto the next phase of our lives, when everything is going to be OK, we should not skip over what just happened.

Someone mentioned to me the other day that he saw Brian Lenihan on TV after the result of the Fianna Fail leadership contest and he thought, "That's a man who is slipping off into the mists of history". And it was kind of sad, and you found yourself thinking, as you did with Katy French, or Gerry Ryan or George Lee: Is that how that story turned out? Is that how that ended? And, just as importantly, you wonder why it ended like this for a man who today's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll still shows to be one of the most popular politicians in the country -- despite only one in 25 people being satisfied with the Government of which he was a member.

And as much as we have all apparently made up our minds about Lenihan, now that he apparently threw it all away on a lunchtime radio interview, do you not feel a tiny bit uneasy about how it is all ending? On Tuesday, after 1,000 days as Finance Minister, Lenihan will shuffle off, his story over for now in terms of history. These were 1,000 days, whatever you think about specific decisions, in which he showed amazing courage and strength, 1,000 days in which he inspired anyone in this country who has a cross to carry, 1,000 days in which he made us all wonder how we would choose to spend our time if we had the excuse and the curse of serious illness, 1,000 days in which he caused every man in this country to contemplate our own mortality, to wonder what our own priorities would be if we were fighting a potentially fatal disease. It was also 1,000 days in which Lenihan, on accession, galvanised us in a way that no other member of the Government did.

It would take a certain kind of man to want to be Finance Minister of this country at any time. It would take an even rarer man to want to be Finance Minster of this country in the last three years. There is possibly only one man who would want to be Finance Minster amid this crisis while also being critically ill. And we know that to start with Lenihan wasn't that man. He cribbed a bit at the beginning about being made the Finance Minister that was going to oversee the worst financial and economic crisis in the history of the State. And who could blame him? But then, he got up and started fighting. He fought his way into the brief and he fought his way through it -- admittedly with mixed results.

In fact, to look at Lenihan and his Taoiseach over the last few years one would have said that the Taoiseach was the sick man and not Lenihan. In the face of overwhelming torpor from the top, as the Taoiseach and his Dail kept their long holidays while the country disintegrated around them, Lenihan was a ball of energy.

He made mistakes, of course. He didn't always do things as well as we would have liked. But in acknowledging that, let's not forget that Lenihan was standing on the shoulders of midgets when he made these mistakes. Every single man jack of the financial/fiscal/economic establishment in this country was clueless through the last few years. The people who were supposed to be regulating the financial system weren't. The system itself was continually lying through its teeth until it was caught out, and then it would roll back the lies and retrench again, until it was caught out again. And as for Lenihan's Department of Finance, well their record tells its own story.

But despite those mistakes, none of us ever really questioned that Lenihan was a good man. Extraordinarily, in today's Sunday Independent /Millward Brown poll, in which his Government enjoys a record 95 per cent dissatisfaction, Lenihan still enjoys a 36 per cent satisfaction rating. Certainly it is down on the 53 per cent satisfaction he enjoyed this time last year, but it beats the hell out of Brian Cowen's 10 per cent and Mary Coughlan's 15 per cent. It is also miles ahead of Enda Kenny's 26 per cent satisfaction rating, and Enda Kenny is going to be the Taoiseach, apparently.

In the end it was not really his mistakes that would bring Lenihan down. The conventional narrative now is that Lenihan was brought down because of one ill-judged interview on the radio, where he backed his leader. Subsequently, John McGuinness, among others, claimed that Lenihan was talking out of both sides of his mouth because he had been participating in dissatisfied discussion around Leinster House about the state of the leadership of Fianna Fail. Personally, I would think Lenihan would want to be daft and simple not to have participated in discussions about the state of the leadership of Fianna Fail in recent months. Neither do I understand why it was such a major crime then for Lenihan to back Cowen so close to an election when he clearly judged, as did two thirds of his colleagues, that this was not the time to oust the leader. Given the elation that has greeted Micheal Martin's elevation to the leadership, Lenihan may have been wrong about that, as were two thirds of his colleagues. But then again, the day he gave that interview, Lenihan was severely underestimating Cowen's kamikaze tendencies.

From there on it all happened very quickly. Lenihan went from hero to zero. Martin was crowned and even Eamon O Cuiv, whose ideas about Fianna Fail and the country were vaguely progressive when his grandfather was espousing them 100 years ago, beat Lenihan in the first count, tied on the second count before going on to finish in second place on the third and final count when Lenihan was eliminated.

So if it wasn't Lenihan's record in Finance that caused his career in the big league to end in such ignominy, do we really believe that it was one tactical error that got pounced on by the media that finished him?

Maybe. But there may be more to it than that. David Davin-Power gave a hint of it on RTE news the other night. He said roughly speaking that no one was suggesting that Cowen rallied behind O Cuiv or that they were encouraged to do so, but that's just what happened. In other words there was a suggestion that Cowen's supporters who weren't supporting Lenihan were encouraged to effectively spoil their votes and spoil Lenihan's chances by voting for O Cuiv, a man who didn't exactly seem devastated not to win the leadership, who had really only come to the whole thing late, and who didn't seem to exactly throw his heart and soul into campaigning.

Which makes you think. Wouldn't it be sad to think that Brian Lenihan's 1,000 days ended in ignominy because the outgoing power scuppered his chances of the leadership, because the bar lobby crowd made noises that people should vote for O Cuiv instead? Wouldn't it be annoying to think that this was Cowen's last gift to the nation he led up the garden path for the last three years? Wouldn't it be awful to think that spite and jealousy did it for Lenihan in the end?

But then it would be understandable if Cowen and his buddies were a bit jealous and resentful of Lenihan. Why should Cowen get all the blame and all the grief for what happened over the last few years while Lenihan, who was Finance Minister, walked away with the leadership? Cowen can't but have noticed over the last few years that while the people turned violently against him, they somehow kept believing in Lenihan. Put simply, even though Cowen and Lenihan were there together leading the administration, people didn't like Cowen and they somehow liked Lenihan.

Of course this probably wasn't the first time a guy like Cowen had felt in the shadow of someone like Lenihan. When you are from the country, and you have the darkness in you, and your face and your facial expression doesn't conform to people's idea of what a happy cheerful face should look like, and then you are confronted with better looking, more confident and more upbeat Dublin lads with a better way about them, you can often start to resent these golden boys. And for all we know Cowen could have been surrounded by golden boys all his life, those guys who were never as smart as Cowen or as deserving as Cowen but guys whom, somehow, the light just shone through in a way it didn't through Cowen. And here was Lenihan again. Cowen was the leader and Lenihan was the one in charge of the economy, which was tanking. But somehow the people loved Lenihan and not Cowen. It must have seemed unfair to Cowen and maybe this unfairness was familiar to Cowen and brought him back to more primitive, immature reactions.

Not that, as the DPP, would say, anyone is suggesting all this is true. But Jesus, wouldn't it be an awful thing if this is how Lenihan's story ends, and if it ended like this due to old-fashioned jealousy, and the last cute stroke of a man who we thought had gone a stroke too far.

When the euphoria that seems to surround Fianna Fail and its resurgent grassroots dies down, in the dark days ahead, they could miss their golden boy. When it comes to talent and leadership there aren't many others like him in Fianna Fail.

Sunday Independent