A loving memorial by those who knew him well: Brian Lenihan – In Calm and Crisis
Review: This poignant book is an important contribution, conveyed by people who were close to the central events
Brian Lenihan: In Calm and Crisis
Edited by Brian Murphy, Mary O'Rourke and Noel Whelan
This book is a loving memorial to Brian Lenihan, the former minister for finance and Fianna Fáil politician. He was caught in the eye of an economic storm that destroyed our economy and led to the surrender of our economic sovereignty in November 2010.
It is written in the form of a Festschrift, a a German term, meaning a festival of written tributes, that would have appealed to the academic Brian Lenihan. It is introduced by Noel Whelan, a Fianna Fáil strategist, barrister and columnist with this newspaper. Fourteen people, including relatives, friends, academic and political colleagues, and others who had worked with him internationally, as well as Fianna Fáil local activists, contribute testimonies of admiration, respect and personal affection for a person who emerges as being larger than life.
Given the tragedy of his premature death and the courage that he displayed when his fatal cancer was diagnosed, it is inevitable that most of the contributions are strong in praise and respect while being diplomatic in any critical observations that they may have had about the man. What does emerge, perhaps unintentionally, is the profile of an extraordinary family.
PJ Lenihan, a civil servant, and his wife were asked by the minister for industry and commerce to move to Athlone in the 1930s and establish and manage a cotton-textile company, Gentex, which at one stage employed more than 700 staff. Brian Lenihan’s grandfather, a Free State supporter, responded to Seán Lemass’s request to become a local entrepreneur, which he did with great social and economic success. His son Brian and daughter Mary later became Dáil deputies, as well as talented and creative cabinet ministers. PJ Lenihan himself, in his later years, became a Fianna Fáil TD for Longford-Westmeath and was, I think, the first father to follow his son into Leinster House. (Mary followed his footsteps in the same constituency.) All of this is to recognise the commitment to public service and political engagement that have been hallmarks of the Lenihan clan.
I knew and liked Brian Lenihan snr. I recall an informal conversation during an interval at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. We were alone, and I said I was reading an interesting book that my father had owned, Parnell and the Home Rule Movement, by TP O’Connor. I asked him some questions about it. In response he launched into a comprehensive review of the book, with which he was clearly familiar, and gave me some local insights into two Athlone-based MPs, Sadlier and Kehoe, who were less than paragons of virtue before Isaac Butt created a disciplined and focused Irish Parliamentary Party, in the late 1800s. This was no show-off event, or that of an older politician lording it over a much younger colleague, but rather a shared interest in history.
His eldest son, namesake and political successor, was carved from the same block. He didn’t take his knowledge of history, and its application to current events, from a stone. Brian Óg was a stellar scholar and academic at Trinity College Dublin, as Mary McAleese and Rory Montgomery testify in their contributions.
From my readings of the Festschrift it is clear that Brian Óg was a cautious European and a political orphan after the collapse of Gaullism. Indeed I can but get the sense, albeit from secondary sources, that he had no grá or enthusiasm for the essential nature of the European project and all that it entails. Maybe that is why he felt abandoned by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy in the G20/Deauville statement, which signalled little help for Fianna Fáil and Ireland.
When Bertie Ahern became taoiseach, in 1997, the growing Irish economy that they had inherited lulled his government and, particularly, his cavalier minister for finance, Charlie McCreevy, into thinking that perhaps Ireland no longer needed the European Union. Indeed, when the European Commission criticised Ireland’s stewardship of the Irish economy, now a part of the euro zone, McCreevy, always a Eurosceptic, put on the green jersey and effectively told Commissioner Joaquin Almunia where to go. Commissioner McCreevy, when he was removed from Finance, did nothing to enhance Ireland’s reputation or relations with the commission or the parliament.
By the time Brian Lenihan came on stage as Ireland’s minister for finance much European admiration and goodwill had been squandered by Bertie Ahern and his Fianna Fáil ministers.
What amazed many of us in Leinster House, as well as Ray MacSharry in his contribution to this book, was Ahern’s extraordinary reluctance to promote Brian Lenihan in 1997. After all, he had won the byelection in a difficult constituency for Fianna Fáil and was a star addition to a parliamentary party not overwhelmed by talent. Lenihan was to spend many years on the back benches before becoming a senior minister for state with responsibility for children.
Ahern finally appointed him to Justice after 2007; Lenihan spent less than 12 months there before Brian Cowen brought him straight into Finance over the heads of cabinet veterans such as Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey, not to mention Micheál Martin.
No one ever doubted Brian Lenihan’s academic brilliance or knowledge of history, or indeed the resources of a political family. But he had no real experience of a heavy department such as Finance and the budgetary cycle of 12 months. Lecturing on international banking is very helpful but not a substitute for real experience in normal times. Sadly, Lenihan’s arrival in finance coincided with absolutely abnormal times, worldwide.
The Department of Finance, at senior management level, had been sidelined for many years by a dominant taoiseach’s department where most of the main budgetary decisions, such as on public-service pay, were determined. In addition, the excessive reliance on property-related transaction taxes not only gave a false sense of confidence but also eroded the overall competitiveness of Irish economy and, in particular, its large export sector.
It is clear, from the point of view of many contributors to this book, that Brian Lenihan’s ability to continue working after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in December 2009 was not noticeably diminished by the treatments he was receiving.
He obviously worked long hours and consulted very widely with experts and commentators outside of the department. This can only, in my experience, have complicated the process of political management, as well as slowing down internal communications.
The book intimates that when Lenihan informed the taoiseach of his medical condition, Brian Cowen either did not ask him to step aside within the cabinet to a less demanding job or, alternatively, acquiesced to the request of the minister for finance to stay in the job. I can think of very few organisations in this country where such an outcome would have occurred, with a key person being kept in place, for whatever reason.
But, sadly, that is all now recent history and the full story has yet to be told. This poignant book is an important contribution to that story, conveyed by people who were close to the central events.