Wednesday 20 March 2019

A moving documentary that answered many questions

The late Brian Lenihan
The late Brian Lenihan
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
John Downing

John Downing

This was a moving evocation of a major figure in Irish public life whose prominence reached its height just as Ireland's worst economic nightmare reached its worst extent.

Brian Lenihan was tragically taken by cancer in May 2011, at the early age of 52. He had been Finance Minister at the nadir of things for the Irish economy and the arrival of the infamous Troika of the EU-ECB-IMF.

By deft use of archive footage, and some precious family home movies, it swiftly and effectively evoked the young Lenihan's milieu. We saw his earliest years in Athlone, and later Dublin; family, friends, football and the tragedy in the heart-rending death of his little brother, Mark, at the tender age of five. There were also revealing vignettes from his driver, Shay Martin.

Such revelations are extremely rare from garda ministerial drivers.

We saw more of the teak-toughness of his party leader, Bertie Ahern, which reminded us why he became Fianna Fáil leader and three-times Taoiseach.

Hark at this recall of Brian Lenihan as the by-election candidate, fighting in 1996 to win the Dublin West Dáil seat which became vacant due to Brian Lenihan Senior's tragic death. "Brian was difficult, to be honest, I've seen it over the years, the more intellectual they are, the more work they don't want to do. You have to do both, you have to be able to put in the graft, keep lunches to a minimum, keep tea to a minimum and keep finishing time late. We had to make him knock on doors . . . other than Castleknock," Ahern frankly summed up.

Sure enough, the name was very good for a politics launch and the resources of Ireland's biggest political party were not spared.

But there were a host of inter-personal and political skills to be learned and some demanding, though doubtless helpful, taskmasters such as long-time minister, Noel Dempsey. We also learned about the level of dismay for Dempsey, and his then Cabinet colleague, Dermot Ahern, when they were left facing television cameras at Dublin Castle denying the Troika's imminent arrival on Brian Lenihan's say-so. Unsurprisingly, that burns to this day.

The programme tried to outline why he stayed on as Finance Minister from late 2010 onwards - even when the extent of his lethal illness became fully public.

It was an extraordinary decision, very difficult to understand, as it is equally hard to know why he was allowed do so. But we suspect those questions will continue to be asked in future generations.

Here, the contributions of Central Bank Governor Professor Patrick Honohan were helpful.

Prof Honohan evidently believed in his Finance Minister. There was a flavour too of the extraordinary turmoil within government and the Fianna Fáil party in late 2010 and early 2011, as the coalition with the Green Party stumbled towards electoral slaughter. It is clear that he misjudged the issue of Fianna Fáil leadership and the disenchantment of some who were ready to follow him is only gently alluded to. The legendary status is added to by images of Lenihan as a "lost Fianna Fáil leader" and Taoiseach.

All in all, it was a moving programme with some interesting answers and many lingering questions.

But fittingly, it was a personal story, and one of profound tragedy. Ironically, too, he was Fianna Fáil's only remaining Dublin TD after the February 2011 General Election debacle. More piquantly, Brian Lenihan was dead just weeks later.

Irish Independent

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