Kevin Cardiff: The Brian Lenihan I knew was unselfish

In the first of two exclusive extracts from his new book, the former Department of Finance secretary general recalls working alongside the gravely-ill minister


One of the principles that defined the Civil Service during my career was political impartiality: civil servants were there to serve whichever government had been elected, and rules prevented any but the more junior grades from being active in party politics.

Although no group is more interested in politics than civil servants – other than maybe politicians themselves – generally speaking any political affiliations are closely guarded. Discussing party preferences at work was something that was, for the vast bulk of civil servants, rarely done. I could count on my fingers the number of civil servants I have dealt with over the years whose party preferences I would know. I have worked with politicians and their politically oriented special advisers from at least five parties over the years, and I have never let their parties determine my advice.

But political impartiality does not blind one to the strengths and weaknesses of one’s political bosses. During the financial crisis the extreme stresses brought out some examples of selfishness, hypocrisy and unpleasantness among leading politicians and public servants – but it brought, too, examples of moral, political and even physical courage and perseverance. Many people’s response to the crisis was unselfish commitment to first stemming and then seeking to repair the terrible damage. An example was Brian Lenihan, who was minister for finance from 2008 until 2011, three months before his death.

I found out that Brian Lenihan had pancreatic cancer at the same time as everybody else, when the news was broadcast by Ursula Halligan of TV3 in December 2009. By then, as second secretary general of the Department of Finance, I had been working closely with him for more than a year and a half and, despite occasional mutual frustrations, had come to know and like him enough that this news was something of a blow. How much more difficult, then, for his family and friends.

Danger of infection

Naturally, as we were in the middle of a very difficult financial crisis, my colleagues and I were also very concerned about how this illness might affect the management of the Department of Finance and of the country. The soon-to-retire secretary general of the department, David Doyle, was practical and compassionate at this moment.

Hand-sanitisation stations appeared around the department, especially in the passage to the minister’s office, and staff were told to be sure to use them, to minimise any danger of infection to the minister. A reclining chair was brought into his office, so that he could rest when he needed to. Senior managers were told to reduce the length and number of meetings with him. Lenihan’s private secretary, Dermot Moylan, who managed his office and much of his workflow, was given the impossible task of maintaining some control over the minister’s natural inclination to expand his working day rather than reduce it.

In fact, in my opinion, Lenihan became a somewhat better minister after his diagnosis. He seemed more focused, he conducted his business more efficiently, by prioritising more, and he reduced his external appointments and so had less distraction.

But he was minister for finance in an economic crisis. One cannot hold that position and yet be only partially engaged. Despite our efforts to reduce his work to the essentials it was never possible to reduce the huge pressures on Lenihan to the level appropriate to a person with such a serious illness, and there were moments when he had to work or travel when it was clear that he ought to be resting.

Even though the government appointed me secretary general of the department only a few weeks after his diagnosis, Lenihan and I did not speak in depth very often about his illness, although it hovered in the background of many conversations. Of necessity we talked occasionally about his treatment and the impact it would have on his work.

At various points in his therapy it was clear that there would be moments when he would be more drained and require more rest than at others, and we would work around those to the extent that we could. Sometimes, though, drained or not, he simply had to engage with important matters that could not wait. Officials can do as much as possible to reduce a minister’s workload, but they don’t have the democratic mandate to take on the role of a minister in his stead.

Naturally enough, after I was appointed secretary general I had received some low-key messages from Brian Cowen’s staff that the taoiseach would like me to be sensitive to the minister’s situation and, of course, to report to the taoiseach if it seemed to me that the illness was reaching a point where he could not function properly.

And from time to time I would be called over to the taoiseach to give him my update on the economic and banking issues we were facing, separately from the regular briefings he was getting from Lenihan. Lenihan knew and approved of this – I kept him informed – and he would have wanted the same had he been taoiseach.

Medical advice

I was not surprised, but wondered about its wisdom, when Lenihan told me towards the end of 2010 or in early 2011 that he had decided to run again for the Dáil. It was clear that his illness would mean he would not – or at least perhaps ought not – take a leading role in politics after the election. But Lenihan said his medical advice was that perhaps it was good to stay actively involved, even if not in a leadership position.

After the election, though, when he had won his seat as the only remaining Fianna Fáil deputy in Dublin, there was a short period before the new Government took office during which Lenihan remained minister for finance on a caretaking basis.

During that time he told me – more than once, so I know it was playing on his mind somewhat – how important it was to him that his constituency had returned him again to the Dáil, and in particular that his family could take some comfort from the fact that his contribution as a minister had been vindicated by his own electorate.

Lenihan was an unusual person. Like anyone, at moments he was not easy to get along with, but much more usually he was polite and friendly. His mind worked overtime, so the telephone might ring late at night or early in the morning if he had some new information to digest or some idea that he wanted to talk through. His way of thinking about an issue was often to talk about it from a range of angles, first taking one line, then another, until his opinion was formed.

Sometimes, in a moment of thoughtlessness or frustration, he would make comments that were more cutting than he intended, and in those cases there was usually an immediate apology or a more generous assessment of whatever had generated the first impatient remark.

I think he aimed, consciously, to be humble. A leading US financier coming to Dublin asked for a meeting with Lenihan, who readily agreed, as this was a time when potential investors were always welcome.

In the course of an introductory discussion this gentleman dropped quite a few names, including that of George W Bush, whom he indicated he knew but whose merits and intellect, he opined, left a great deal to be desired.

But if that was the case, Lenihan wondered, how had Bush managed to be elected president of the United States? “Just because he had the same name as his famous father” was the answer. Lenihan did not bristle or explain that he was himself the namesake of his own famous father, a long-serving minister in previous Irish governments. He simply said, “That can happen, all right.”

Lenihan was proud of his own erudition. After a very serious conversation with Christine Lagarde, then France’s minister for finance and now managing director of the International Monetary Fund, he recounted to me the details of the conversation but made sure to remind me that, “of course, I spoke to her in French”.

But, in the moments of calm that did present themselves in a tumultuous few years, his breadth of both education and interest was surprising. A simple remark from me on some past event might generate a detailed history of some Irish locale, or of how some minor point of law had developed and become crucial to a historical event.

I even recall, while we were sharing a flight back from a meeting abroad, his giving me a short lecture on a Brocken spectre – a magnificently sharp and clear shadow, in this case of our aircraft, projected on to a cloud bank on our right by the sunlight above and to the left of us, and surrounded by a rainbow-like spectrum of light that formed a perfect circle around the shadow.

In the last few months of Lenihan’s time as minister his illness seemed to be changing him physically. He was more gaunt, his face a touch hollowed, his skin more sallow.

On one occasion around this time he summoned some journalists who had been waiting outside the department to our conference room for an update on some situation or other – an impromptu press conference that I would have advised against had I had the chance. He looked ill and tired, and I grabbed hold of Eoin Dorgan, his press officer (and subsequently an adviser to Michael Noonan). I told Eoin that Lenihan should not do this press conference looking as he did; it would be commented on, I said, and the minister might regret it. What could be done?

Eoin said he had a bottle of Touche Éclat that the minister might be persuaded to use before facing the photographers. There was then a moment of unspoken communication between us as, I think, we each pondered what turn in our careers had led us to a professional discussion of the merits of some kind of cover-all make-up.

It would be easy, of course, to catalogue Lenihan’s minor faults and foibles, but there seems little point in that, and I will leave it to others to assess his term as minister. To me the key question in assessing him as a person is how, when confronted with enormous national decisions to make, and great personal stress arising from his work and his illness, did he respond. The answer to that is courageously, and with dignity.

xKevin Cardiff was second secretary general of the Department of Finance from 2006 to 2010 and secretary general from 2010 to February 2012; he joined the European Court of Auditors in March 2012

This is an edited extract from Recap: Inside Ireland’s Financial Crisis, published by the Liffey Press. All royalties from the sale of the book will be donated to Goal

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