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Distortions don't do justice to Brian Lenihan's legacy


The late Brian Lenihan

The late Brian Lenihan

Illustration by JIm Cogan

Illustration by JIm Cogan


The late Brian Lenihan

Last weekend, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of WB Yeats. So it was inevitable that when the terrible news broke from Berkeley, the lines of The Stolen Child came to mind:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

When my daughters were young, they loved these lines. But I was more ambivalent, finding the concept of a child taken from the woes of this world both comforting and chilling.

We can hardly bear to think about the great gaping gaps in the lives of the grieving families. But why have the deaths of the boys and girls in Berkeley so touched the core of the country?

Possibly because they came from the resilient Ross O'Carroll-Kelly generation that cheerfully bore the blows of the recession and took their talents abroad.

Micheal Martin, no stranger to family tragedy himself, did the right thing by contacting the Taoiseach to devote the day in the Dail to the dead. Mary McAleese righteously reprimanded the New York Times for lazy journalism.

* * * * *

RTE's Collusion did not suffer from lazy journalism. It completed the BBC Spotlight jigsaw, revealing how British intelligence and elements of the RUC manipulated murders by the Provisional IRA.

Collusion showed the same state puppeteers at work with lethal loyalist murder gangs. And my first reaction was shock, not surprise.

No commentator on Northern Ireland would be surprised by revelations of dirty tricks by rogue units. But I was shocked by the sheer scale of the allegations by Nuala O'Loan.

I should have been shocked, too, by the lack of reaction in the southern media. But the Republic is profoundly partitionist. Had it faced that fact long ago, we could have saved lives.

Cogitating on Collusion forces two firm conclusions.

First, it's time to name, shame and indict those at the top, who turned a blind eye to the manipulation of those who murdered Pat Finucane and bombed Dublin and Monaghan.

Second, it would help if Provo propagandists stopped using Collusion to promote tribal agendas on political internet sites - and pretending the British state was uniquely evil in its use of state terror.

All states have resorted to state terror in response to private terror. The French did so in Algeria. The Americans did so after 9/11.

We did so, too. The Irish Free State shot 77 republicans. De Valera's wartime regime shot IRA men and carried out black ops to split the republican movement.

But at least Kevin O'Higgins took responsibility for his actions and inactions. Time the British and Irish states did so too.

* * * * *

Laissez-faire journalism, rather than lazy journalism, distorted RTE's programme Lenihan: A Legacy about the late Brian Lenihan.

A sloppy surrender to populist slogans saw later commentators claim that Bertie Ahern had been "bitter" about Lenihan - and didn't like him because Lenihan was an intellectual who liked Wagner!

Bertie Ahern was not bitter about Brian Lenihan on the show I saw. Wry and critical? Yes. Bitter? No. In fact, the only bitter voice on the film was that of Joe Higgins.

I knew Lenihan and Ahern better than some who spoke on the show. But I was closer to Brian Lenihan, being one of his large circle of political texters.

A further bond was that I was the first pundit to really register Lenihan's arrival as a potential Taoiseach, in two articles published in 2007. But we had other common interests. When I was in the Seanad, we often spoke of the hidden history of southern Protestants.

So when Helen Collins, with great emotional as well as political intelligence, invited Lenihan to speak at Beal na Blath in 2010, he tried to heal other wounds, too.

Clearly influenced by the work of Peter Hart, he recalled how "many people with little or no connection to the struggle died or suffered by accident, or because of where they worked or where they worshipped".

Honouring Lenihan does not demand we diminish Ahern. Lenihan: A Legacy did so by glossing over three areas.

First, it failed to fully register that Ahern appointed Lenihan Minister for Justice - which hardly argues a bitter agenda.

Second, anyone around at the time knew that Brian Cowen was a lot more - let's say, tense - than Ahern had been about Lenihan's massive media popularity.

Finally, Ahern's criticisms of the laid-back Brian Lenihan during his first 1996 election campaign smacked more of the class consciousness of a hard grafter with no political pedigree rather than personal envy.

Marian Quinlan, Lenihan's personal secretary, was as critical as Ahern about Lenihan's handicaps as a canvasser.

"He was uncomfortable with people. He couldn't engage, he couldn't look people straight in the eye. His mind was elsewhere.He'd be looking over your shoulder at somebody else."

Class consciousness, too, marked Ahern's memory of that campaign: "You had to get him to knock at doors [pause, wry smile] other than Castleknock."

Ignoring the internet trolls, Harry McGee did not doubt the sincerity of Ahern's summing up of Lenihan's last heroic days.

"His mind was crystal clear, sharp as a razor. At times, he seemed almost more focused, because his whole life was about the treatment and the job, and that was a huge sacrifice and I think people, hopefully, will understand and appreciate the sacrifice it was."

But Joe Higgins knew better. Donning what he believes to be his hard ideological face, he made this foolish prediction about Lenihan's legacy: "Brian Lenihan will be remembered as the Minister for Finance who acceded to the pressure from the European political and economic establishment to bail them out on the shoulders of ordinary working people. That will be the cold judgment of history."

No it won't, Joe.

Sunday Independent