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John Drennan: Farewell to the last Fianna Fail aristocrat


BORN POLITICIAN: Brian Lenihan with Fionnuala Lagan during an canvass in Clonsilla, west Dublin, ahead of February’s general election. Photo: Gerry Mooney

BORN POLITICIAN: Brian Lenihan with Fionnuala Lagan during an canvass in Clonsilla, west Dublin, ahead of February’s general election. Photo: Gerry Mooney

BORN POLITICIAN: Brian Lenihan with Fionnuala Lagan during an canvass in Clonsilla, west Dublin, ahead of February’s general election. Photo: Gerry Mooney

MANY years ago when Brian Lenihan Snr and Niall Blaney were discussing the merits of their respective offspring at the Dail Bar, Lenihan Snr famously said: "Brian is brilliant, he can do whatever he wants, whilst Conor. . . well, Conor is very good with his hands."

Ironically, Conor did far better than expected, whilst the cruelties of political life and the fates meant that Brian, the brilliant child, had to fight far harder than expected to secure even some of his most cherished ambitions.

Perhaps the key to the difficulties he had to overcome is provided by an encounter in the final weeks of his life where, on being asked about the state of his health, a visibly upset Lenihan was more concerned about the fact that "I will not live to see my country recover".

The language and the selflessness belonged to a level we associate with those 19th-Century patriots, rather than the more modern school of professional politicians.

There was, in truth, something of a different Edwardian age surrounding the scholarly mindset of possibly the last FF politician to secure the love of the public.

Irish politics may not do aristocrats, in an official sense at least, but if they did, Lenihan was born to the role. The problem was that his Whig instincts were not exactly best suited to the infighting that was necessary for success within FF.

Within the Dail, if there was a moment that captured the nature of Brian Lenihan's career, it occurred when, as a new government back-bencher, he arrived in on a sleepy Wednesday afternoon to speak on a bill.

The bill was so unimportant that it was a being taken by some hapless junior minister who was struggling, like the rest of us, to keep his eyes open.

The tranquillity did not last long as Lenihan ambushed our dozing minister from the rear with a series of opening remarks about the philosophic views of "the great 17th-Century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius".

As a terrified junior minister, who knew little enough about the contents of the Bill, let alone 17th-Century Dutch philosophers, stared in open-mouthed fear at Lenihan it was clear this was no ordinary political debut.

The vignette also cut to the core of the strengths and weakness of Lenihan as a politician. He was uniquely bright but Lenihan was also a member of a party whose core values included a fundamental distrust of independent thought.

It did not help, of course, that Lenihan was sometimes too pleased with that intelligence for his own good. In a political world of jealous sole traders, it is always best to hide some of your light beneath a bushel, lest you irritate your equally ambitious but less talented colleagues or alert the bigger party beasts to your arrival.

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Politics was not always kind to Brian Lenihan and he, in time, freely admitted that much of the fault lay with him. His biggest flaw ultimately was the uneasy relationship he developed with the very different Bertie Ahern.

The problem with Bertie was not just that under Mr Ahern, only one sun could shine to such an extent that even shooting stars, no matter how bright, were not allowed prosper lest they clutter up the skyline.

Instead, the tangled relationship between Ahern and Lenihan resembled the scenario where a manager and a player simply rub each other up the wrong way.

Lenihan was a self-confident, privately educated, scholarly child of a political dynasty. Bertie, by contrast, like his mentor Charlie Haughey, was a butty self-made Nort'side Dublin ward boss who, after his initial skirmishes with the aristocratic George Colley, viewed the old-style FF dynasties with a secret contempt.

Both Ahern and Lenihan denied there was a problem but some still remember a narrowly avoided encounter at a FF 'think-in' where the still-backbench TD loudly used a series of extremely unparliamentary adjectives about the Taoiseach and the effect Mr Ahern was having on his career. Unfortunately, though we were in vino veritas at the time, unlike Lenihan, we noticed that a very sober Bertie was standing within hearing distance.

Mr Ahern said nothing but Lenihan continued to be a backbench TD for another five years until it was no longer even faintly plausible to keep FF's good servant away from the cabinet table.

It is somewhat poignant to think that a mere three years have passed since the appointment of Brian Cowen to the Taoiseach's office and of Mary Coughlan and Brian Lenihan to the two most powerful offices in the State appeared to represent the apotheosis of the old FF dynasties.

The fates since then were not kind to any of them. Indeed within months of becoming Finance Minister, Lenihan was bewailing his misfortune at getting the job, just as the economy had come to a shuddering halt.

Even the kindest person could not say that he was a success in Finance but it must also be said that it is doubtful anyone could have triumphed from the position he found himself in.

The battle had already been lost and the State hollowed out long before the last of the generals arrived to try and save the city. Like Leonidas of Sparta at Thermopylae, victory was impossible for Lenihan but some degree of honour at least was secured.

The minister was no economist but Lenihan evolved into a one-man profile of political courage at a time where such qualities were in short supply. In the end, it all fell apart to such an extent that after a year where it was believed the leadership of FF was in his gift he was even denied that particular prize.

Some of the Cowen wing claimed they had been double-crossed. However, the alternative view -- that the flawed Lenihan gene of being simply unable to say no to anyone -- has a truer ring.

Throughout his time of trouble, other generic Lenihan virtues were retained. He was possibly the most courteous and approachable politician the Dail has seen.

Happily, he was no saint either, for even in his last weeks, as he basked in the unseasonable sunlight of the last spring he would ever see, Lenihan chortled merrily about the set of landmines he had kept for the new administration.

Ultimately, the real nature of the man was perhaps most accurately captured by the Finance Minister's reply when a concerned colleague asked him why he had not resigned his ministry to tend to his health. The genuinely astonished minister asked: "Do you think my response to this thing should be to simply give up, go home, curl up and die?"

The one thing that can most assuredly be said of this most clever and mercurial of politicians is that over the final hard 18 months of his life he most certainly did not do any of those things.

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