Safe pair of hands exercised quiet influence


Séamus Brennan represented Dublin South in Dáil Éireann and served in governments led by Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern in a political career spanning 35 years. 

First elected to the Dáil in 1981, he was rewarded for his extraordinary vote-winning skills in Dublin South with a string of ministerial portfolios, including Education, Transport and, more recently, Arts, Sport and Tourism.

Tipped in the 1980s as a possible future party leader and taoiseach, he once admitted to coveting the job of minister for finance. 

He began his ministerial career as Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce, between 1987 and 1989. He became a full Cabinet minister when he was appointed Minister for Tourism and Transport in 1989, a post that evolved into Minister for Tourism, Transport and Communications between 1991 and 1992. He then served as Minister for Education from 1992 to 1993.

In 1993, the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition came to power and he became Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise and Employment. Between 1994 and 1997, when Fianna Fáil was in opposition, he served as party spokesperson on Transport, Energy and Communications.

Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1997 in a minority coalition with the Progressive Democrats, supported by Independent TDs.

He was appointed Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, with special responsibility as Government Chief Whip, and Minister of State at the Department of Defence. He held these posts for the full five-year term of Government.

Following Fianna Fáil's re-election in 2002 he was appointed first as Minister for Transport then, in 2004, Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

Immediately after the general election in 2007, he played a key role in the negotiations with the Green Party, which led to the formation of the current Government.

Born in Galway on February 16th, 1948, he was the son of a builder who ran his own business, He went to an all-Irish speaking primary school and later, the Patrician Brothers-run St Joseph’s College. He developed an early interest in politics and began to canvass for Fianna Fáil in his teenage years.

He met his wife, Ann O’Shaughnessy, at university where he graduated with a degree in economics. The couple had two sons and four daughters.

Having completed his primary degree, he studied commerce at UCG and UCD to Masters level, qualifying as an accountant and economist. By then, however, he had already been bitten by the political bug, and set about rising through the ranks of Fianna Fáil.

While seen as a relatively safe pair of hands in Fianna Fáil, he courted occasional controversy, most notably in April 1992 when calls were made for his resignation from government after he admitted passing on a confidential letter to beef baron Larry Goodman.

He appeared before the Beef Tribunal to explain his role in the affair, which dated back to 1987 when he was Minister of State for Trade and Marketing, or in his own perhaps inflated description, “salesman for Ireland”.

In 1991, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Communications, he headed the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Telecom Éireann’s £9.4 million purchase of the former Johnston, Mooney and O’Brien site in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

Two years earlier, whilst in the same portfolio, he drew criticism for a decision to take operating rights on three air routes from Aer Lingus and to give them exclusively to Ryanair.

When RTÉ Radio asked him whether Tony Ryan was a Fianna Fáil supporter, or whether the businessman had made a contribution to the party, Brennan demanded - and received - an apology from the State broadcaster for its supposed impertinence.

An opponent within Fianna Fáil of Charles J Haughey, he was overlooked for major posts in the former taoiseach’s administrations. Throughout this period, Brennan developed a lasting friendship with Des O’Malley but chose not to leave Fianna Fáil  when the latter formed the Progressive Democrats.

In 1989, Haughey gave Brennan the job, along with Charlie McCreevy, of negotiating a coalition deal with the PDs after that year’s general election. Notwithstanding his friendship with O’Malley, he did not favour two cabinet seats for Fianna Fáil's coalition partners.

During his term as Minister for Transport between 2002 and 2004, he was bedevilled by chaos at Dublin Airport and frequent clashes with unions, and also was accused of kow-towing to Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. He was labelled in the media as something  of a minister for broken promises, especially in the area of road safety.

Before leaving the Department, however, he did succeed in introducing the first phase of the drivers’ penalty-points system despite opposition from garda representative groups.

In a Cabinet reshuffle in 2004, he was bitterly disappointed to be moved from Transport to Social and Family Affairs. While he refused to describe it as a demotion, his relations became more strained with several Cabinet colleagues.

In the 2007 general election, however, he proved to have lost none of his vote-winning powers topping the poll in Dublin South. He was elected on the first count with a hugely impressive 13,373 first preferences.

The result would have made it difficult for Bertie Ahern to leave him out of his new Cabinet, and he was appointed Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism in June 2007. It is understood he had something of a fraught relationship with some members of the arts community but, overall, his time in the portfolio was uneventful.

In recent times, he suffered from poor health, and in May resigned from office citing illness.

In April he showed that he still had the capacity to irk his Cabinet colleagues. Speaking in the wake of Chinese attacks on Tibetan activists, he said - much to the annoyance of certain ministers - that if China’s human rights record did not improve, the Government would consider boycotting the opening ceremony of the Olypmic Games.
He is survived by his wife Ann, their two sons and four daughters. 

Séamus Brennan: born February 16th, 1948; died July 9th, 2008.