The Brian Cowen government, from its creation to its demise, was engulfed by the greatest crisis in the history of the State. In exclusive extracts from their new book, Daniel McConnell and John Lee recount the inside story of political and economic meltdown
AS THE 2010 European crisis worsened and engulfed the continent, a committee was established by the European Commission with the ECB and the IMF to organise loans to embattled countries. It became known as the Troika — the Russian word for a sled pulled by three horses.
By late September, Ireland was in the crosshairs and pressure was mounting for Ireland to enter a bailout. Brian Cowen, to this day, maintains that the government, in the autumn, felt it could have struggled on without assistance for some time longer.
Patrick Honohan, the Central Bank Governor, had known as far back as early summer of that year that international power-brokers believed a financial programme should be imposed on Ireland, and that he was under pressure to get the government to seek help.
Honohan was in favour of Ireland accepting help, and as a member of the ECB board he was conflicted in his loyalties. He reveals that there was huge apprehension at ECB level over Lenihan’s stubborn refusal to request help.
They communicated this to Honohan on 17 November. “On Wednesday night, I called [Lenihan] because the ECB guys were jumping up and down ... they thought this was very destructive to Ireland because they did not think Ireland was going to go into a programme, because Brian Lenihan had said in Brussels, ‘I am not going to go into a programme, I am not going to apply for a programme.’”
Mary O’Rourke had arranged to meet Lenihan in the Dáil self-service restaurant at 9pm. The Dáil sits late on Wednesday nights to accommodate votes, often until after midnight. The food in the self-service restaurant, which is usually of a fine standard, inevitably deteriorates as the night stretches on. When Lenihan arrived his aunt called to him: “That auld rabbit food is still there.”
Before Lenihan could begin his meal, his private secretary, Dermot Moylan, interrupted and said, “The boss is on the phone.” O’Rourke asked, “Is that the taoiseach?” Lenihan replied laconically, “No, Honohan.”
With extraordinary stress and tension being imposed on a critically ill man it is understandable that Lenihan would resort to sarcasm. But he now appeared to be in significant conflict with his Central Bank governor as well as his taoiseach. “Brian was very angry, fulminating when he came back,” says O’Rourke. “Brian didn’t like the way it was done.”
Lenihan told her that Honohan wanted him to call a Cabinet meeting to seek a bailout and he had replied that it was not within his power to call Cabinet meetings. That was the responsibility of the taoiseach. According to O’Rourke, Honohan had warned Lenihan that he was to go on radio the following morning.
Honohan’s recollection of the phone call differs from O’Rourke’s version. He agrees that Lenihan was angry: “It would confirm my view that he was cross.” But he adds, “I would not have asked him to call a Cabinet meeting, that is not my place.” He also contends O’Rourke’s claim that he told Lenihan he in- tended going on radio the night before his interview. “No, no. I had not come up with that idea,” the former governor says. “I was only passing on a message from the ECB, they were all upset.”
Lenihan told him, “Why don’t you go? Why don’t you apply? I have no authority.” Honohan believes that Lenihan was shirking his responsibility and wanted to avoid being the man who rubber-stamped the bailout. Honohan then speculates, “But did he have no authority because he had not told anyone?”
On Thursday 18 November, at 8.13am, Honohan blew the government’s increasingly futile strategy out of the water when he rang RTÉ to try to get on the Morning Ireland radio programme. He phoned RTÉ from his hotel room in Frankfurt. He says he made up his mind to break ranks with the government’s continued denials because of a damning Financial Times article he had gotten wind of the night before. He decided that “I needed to try to stem the uncertainty and the panic. I think Morning Ireland is the obvious place and I had been on it before and I knew what the audience was.”
He struggled to make contact with the programme, having realised he had no idea what number to ring. “So then, could I find a telephone number for them? I think Neil [Whoriskey, Honohan’s press officer] gave me a number to call and I just called them.”
Des Cahill, the well-known sports presenter, answered the call, took a number for Honohan and got a colleague to ring him back. He was put through to presenter Rachael English. And he announced that Ireland was in talks with the EU and IMF about a bailout. “I know that these talks are serious talks, that the IMF and the European Union Commission and the ECB would not send a large team if they didn’t believe, first of all, that ... they could agree to a package, that there is a programme that is fully acceptable to them, that could be designed, and is likely to be acceptable to the Irish government and the Irish people,” Honohan told English.
Lenihan and Cowen were as one in their reaction to this intervention — they were incandescent. O’Rourke says, “Then, of course, Honohan became Mr Goody Two Shoes and everyone loved him. He had blown the cover and that was it. Brian [Lenihan] was desperately trying to hold the line. I’m sure Cowen was furious, but Brian [Lenihan] was furious, he sure was.”
Eamon Ryan was more understanding of Honohan’s predicament. “I think the ECB put an enormous amount of pressure on Patrick Honohan and he would have been very sensitive about what was going on because he would have seen the figures and where they were going out.”
Few other senior government figures were as magnanimous. The governor may have thought he was being helpful, but he was not a politician and according to Alan Ahearne gravely misjudged the ramifications for elected representatives: “It made it politically more difficult. There was criticism because it wasn’t the taoiseach or finance minister announcing it, it was someone else ... Lenihan was not happy. It made it much harder for him. While it didn’t change the outcome, Lenihan was certainly wrong-footed politically. Politically, it was tough.”
Mary Harney, the most experienced politician in Cabinet, felt Honohan didn’t understand negotiation as the elected TDs did. “It accelerated the crisis I suppose, but then again he had responsibilities to the ECB of which he was a member. But clearly it was a time when we were trying to play our best hand when in negotiation.”
It was all about the deal for her: “We’re trying to get debt written off. We’re trying to negotiate the best possible deal. When those things come into the public domain it weakens your position, the inevitability of it.”
And she felt it unduly upset citizens hearing the interview on the country’s most listened-to current affairs show. “I respect the fact that he felt he had to do it, but at the time it caused a lot of upset, it added to a sense of panic for the country.”
Dara Calleary is one of those who believed that Honohan was conflicted by his position on the ECB board.
“I am old-style in many things, and I just did not think it was a good idea. I thought, my God, this is the governor of the Central Bank, what team is he on? Is he on the Irish team? Is he on Team Ireland or is he on Team ECB? And I firmly believed it was Team ECB.”
Cowen reckons Honohan put the government “in a bad light because of the interpretation given to events that we were keeping what was going on away from people. In fact, we were trying to put ourselves in the best position we could, before formally requesting assistance.”
Honohan denies the charge that he was favouring the ECB. “It is simply
not true. Because first of all what did the ECB have to gain from that? Why would I do that to please some people in the ECB? Am I going to get a bonus? Are they going to think I am a good fellow because he came around to our point of view instead of his own country’s point of view? It is absurd. They would despise someone who would behave like that.”
Completely wrong-footed and with his strategy now in ruins, a dejected Lenihan rang Honohan an hour after he came off air and said, “Patrick, I can’t contradict anything you said.” Honohan wasn’t exactly contrite and the former bank governor says, “I thought it was a very funny thing to say and I said, ‘You certainly can’t.’ But he was actually restrained.”
That afternoon the IMF spokeswoman in Washington, Caroline Atkinson, said the focus of the discussions was “to look at whatever measures might be needed to support financial stability”. She said talks would take into consideration the IMF’s views “on the government’s budget plans ... on tax and spending measures”.
Under fire from the opposition, Cowen denied that the rescue plan would lead to a loss of Irish sovereignty. He also dismissed suggestions of failure. “I don’t believe there’s any reason for Irish people to be ashamed and humiliated.”
The following day a dozen-strong team from the IMF, staying at the Merrion Hotel, walked fifty yards across Merrion Street to negotiate the rescue package. There were also twenty officials from the ECB and the European Commission. The Irish government, too, had a large negotiating team, with many senior officials including Department of Finance Secretary-General Kevin Cardiff, Chief Executive of the Financial Regulator Matthew Elderfield and, later, Patrick Honohan.
Years later the contents of a letter from Trichet warning Lenihan that he must enter a bailout were released. Cowen described it at the Banking Inquiry: “On 19 November, ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet sent a letter to Minister Lenihan threatening withdrawal of ECB funds in the absence of a formal bailout request. This was not well received by us.”
Sent from Frankfurt, the letter was stamped ‘Secret’ and addressed from the ECB and the ‘Eurosystem’, the term used to describe the collective of the ECB and the group of national central banks in the euro currency. Trichet wrote that the governing council of the ECB “needs to assess whether it is appropriate to impose specific conditions in order to protect the integrity of our monetary policy”. He said that the ‘exposure’ of the Irish and European financial systems to the dysfunctional Irish banks “has risen significantly over the past few months to levels that we con- sider with great concern”.
He added a long list of requirements he believed the Irish government needed to fulfil in a short time. Chief among these was an order that Ireland should immediately enter a funding programme: “The Irish government shall send a request for financial support to the Eurogroup.” He continued, “I am sure that you are aware that a swift response is needed before markets open next week, as evidenced by recent market tensions which may further escalate, possibly in a disruptive way, if no concrete action is taken by the Irish government on the points I mention above.”
Trichet’s bellicose language was a clear threat to Lenihan, with the subtext that if he didn’t enter a bailout programme he could be responsible for bringing down the European financial system. Honohan rather undermines his contention that he wasn’t overly influenced by the ECB when he confirms he had a role in drafting the letter and concedes that it would have been interpreted as a threat. “Obviously this letter is going to be taken as a threat, that is obvious to me anyway. And I told him so,” says Honohan.
But he defends Trichet’s right to send it. “Trichet regards himself as entitled to send that just from the point of view of stating the facts. What are the facts? We have lent an enormous sum of money, we are at our limit, we cannot in our mandate lend any more money. It is not a threat it is just a fact. I do think he is within his rights, I do not think it is dishonest. It reflects the legal basis on which he sent that letter. And I don’t think it was a hostile letter.”
Honohan believes that Trichet took the attitude of somebody dealing with “a recalcitrant child”. That Trichet was saying to Ireland “if you don’t do your homework you will not get anymore sweets”.
That weekend, much to the annoyance of the French and the Germans, Lenihan reiterated that Ireland’s corporation tax rate was non-negotiable and said talks were still at a “preliminary stage”. The government met to sign off on its four-year plan of cuts that would be implemented into 2014, which had been agreed upon by the EU and the IMF in broad principle. Lenihan would announce €6 billion in cuts in the budget.
On Sunday, November 21, the Cabinet met to formally agree to seek help. Cowen said during the negotiations, which were to continue for a week, that he attempted to get Troika agreement for burden- sharing by unguaranteed senior bondholders — that would allow Ireland to default on huge debts to private lenders. He said that the IMF personnel in Dublin were sympathetic but that when it was referred to a higher level within the IMF the proposal was rejected.
Cowen claimed at the Banking Inquiry that the United States vetoed the plan through Timothy Geithner, US treasury secretary. “He was opposed [to the default option] because he claimed it would totally undermine market access for those European countries that were in trouble. We also understand that the ECB were opposed to it for the same reason,” said Cowen.
“Without the EU Commission, ECB and IMF all being in agreement, it was not possible to have the burden-sharing issue included in the programme. It was made clear to us that any attempt by us to burden-share with senior bondholders would mean no programme for Ireland.”
Burden-sharing, or ‘burning the bondholders’, became a populist general election proposal for Fine Gael the following year and was to remain a politically explosive issue for years to come. There was also much criticism of the interest rate for the loans being set at 5.8% when it was clear the cost of lending the money was substantially lower.
Honohan, who had played a role in railroading the government into the deal, was deeply critical of the final agreement. “We could have got much lower interest rates, I didn’t like the interest rates, and they were too high, the whole thing was barely sustainable and I said this to the government.” Cowen remains deeply critical of the role of the ECB in Ireland’s bailout.
For Lenihan, the bailout represented a shattering and demoralising defeat. He poignantly described his feelings in his last major interview with the BBC. “I have a very vivid memory of going to Brussels ... being on my own at the airport, looking at the snow gradually thawing, and thinking to myself: ‘This is terrible.’ I had fought for two-and-a-half years to avoid this conclusion. I believed I had fought the good fight and taken every measure possible to delay such an eventuality, and now hell was at the gates.”
Micheál Martin had been away from the white heat of the bailout negotiations, spending time with his family as they had suffered the tragic death of their daughter Léana at this time.
He concedes that the government had badly handled the lead up to the bailout. “It was a very low moment for the government. Terrible, these were very difficult days, nobody likes to be in a situation where the country has to go into that scenario.”
But, ultimately, he welcomed the programme. “I couldn’t get over the opposition to the bailout; to me the bailout was about getting in a three-year loan to pay your education, to pay your welfare, to pay your public salaries, at rates that were better than the market could ever hope to give you at that particular moment of time.
“Maybe one of the errors we made was that we didn’t go earlier and embrace the concept of the bailout in a more proactive way and sort of say look, this is inevitable, let’s go and do it. I knew electorally and politically it would sink us. But ... what was going to run the country? So it was necessary. Also, in time we felt it would be changed down the line.”
Cowen and Lenihan experienced a final defeat on Sunday 21 November. By agreeing to go into the programme they had committed Ireland to an unconditional financial surrender. Then, the following day, Monday 22 November, came political haemorrhage when the Green Party TDs announced that they had finally had enough. They announced their intention to withdraw from government, calling for a general election for the second half of January 2011.
At a press conference in Leinster House, John Gormley said, “The past week has been a traumatic one for the Irish electorate. People feel misled and betrayed. But we have now reached a point where the Irish people need political certainty to take them beyond the coming two months. So we believe it is time to fix a date for a general election in the second half of January 2011.”
The Greens said they still intended to complete bailout negotiations (the programme was agreed on 27 November), help produce a credible four-year plan to balance budgets by 2014 and deliver a budget of €6 billion in cuts for 2011 on 7 December.
The Greens had decided to pull out that weekend. Eamon Ryan relates: “Our parliamentary party met and politicians have antennae in terms of what goes on — we could not continue.” Ryan, asked when he knew that the government had reached the end of the line, replies, “You know when you are spit on.”
He claims that some of his party suffered this disgusting indignity from members of the public. The unpopularity of the government was reaching its nadir, and Ryan says Green Party colleagues “felt afraid to walk down the main street of the village and the town, that is what we were aware of, in terms of public reaction”.
Before holding a press conference they informed the senior Fianna Fáil men of their decision. “John [Gormley] was ringing Brian Cowen, I was ringing Brian Lenihan, I got through to Brian Lenihan fairly close to our press conference. Brian understood the political logic, they are astute enough politically, their own political antennae told them that this is not credible.”
Though the Greens wanted to delay an election until the financial measures were passed, Ryan was worried that Cowen would travel to see the president in the Phoenix Park and dissolve the government. “I was nervous. Would he run to the Park? But he didn’t.”
Micheál Martin was put in charge of negotiating with the Greens a timeline for the wind-down of the government, and says his party colleagues were in conflict over their next move. There was a tense meeting in Government Buildings that Monday.
“Then there was a meeting of the Fianna Fáil ministers in the Sycamore Room. Some ministers wanted to pull out and say we should call an election. There was a feeling among some in Fianna Fáil that the general election should be a form of referendum on the bailout and that the people should decide who should implement it ... I did intervene and said under no circumstances [should we pull out].
“We had three things to do: we had to get the bailout agreed, we had to get the six-billion budget out of the way and we had to do the four-year plan,” says Martin, “because if we learned anything in the 1980s, successive governments had diddled around, they had not faced up to decisions and they prolonged the recession.”
Martin says that the two senior men backed him: “Lenihan was 100%, he was relieved, and Brian Cowen was absolutely clear, that’s what we had to do.” Martin recalls Cowen saying “the party is important, but the country comes first”. He admits that going into a general election in those circumstances was “the ultimate in electoral hari-kari”.
“If there was an election that October we would have saved another twenty or thirty seats,’ says O’Rourke.
COWEN AND THE END
Brian Cowen says his decision to resign was driven by the final, chaotic revolt of the Greens over his planned reshuffle in January 2011.
“I just felt that’s it for me, my authority has been undermined. I was constitutionally entitled to do what I was doing. People might have a view about the timing of it and all the rest of it or the personalities, that’s their own business. I was left in a position where I couldn’t do what I wanted to do: you can’t lead a government on that basis. There comes sometimes a point where the party has to take a hit or there is a hit coming that can’t be avoided.” He believes that Fianna Fáil could not avoid the catastrophe.
He insists that the actions he and his government took, while deeply unpopular, saved the country. “Certainly I would have hoped that it was not as hard as it was, but there was no political capital to be gained in doing what we had to do. There is no doubt that for the state to continue, for us to have some prospects of recovery, I’m absolutely convinced that we were on the right track.” But still, we asked him if he misses politics.
“Not as much as I thought I would. I think having been in the top position there is no real role for you after that. I saw Garret FitzGerald do an extra term, I saw Albert Reynolds do an extra term and we don’t have the tradition in Ireland really for people of that calibre to stay on in politics and, if you like, give their view without it being interpreted as ‘oh you’re having a cut at the new fella’.
“When what you have to say won’t be accepted on face value there is not much point in hanging around. You’d like to have the freedom of making your contribution. I just felt, for myself ... there is no future for me on the backbenches because I have seen other former taoisigh not being afforded that opportunity.”
Cowen decided to do what a former Fine Gael taoiseach had done. “So I said, ‘step out’. I’m of what I call the Liam Cosgrave school of retirement. Step back.” Most politicians, when reflecting on an end to their career, do so with bitterness. Cowen, who had the most tumultuous term in office of any taoiseach, is rancour-free. “I had no complaints. I wasn’t leaving upset with anybody. The people had spoken, no problem. My relationships with all my former colleagues were good: my relationship with the present leader [Micheál Martin] is good. I have no adverse comment to make. I only try to be helpful whenever I can be, locally here at constituency level. There is absolutely no animus.”
Cowen had a long and distinguished career in Cabinet before the dramatic denouement. “I had a good career, I can’t complain with the level of responsibility I was given by two other taoisigh and I’m just grateful for the opportunity to serve.”
But he also believes he left a legacy. “Yes, my taoiseach term was a difficult time but I think over time people are maybe realising that we did get through that period, that what we did was part of the necessary recovery.”
BRIAN LENIHAN CANCER
In the days before Brian Lenihan delivered his third budget in fourteen months in December 2009, he complained to his colleagues about pains in his back and stomach.
Anxious, knowing the kind of stress he was under in the run-up to the budget, which was unveiled on 9 December 2009, they urged him to go to the doctor. “I had a pain in my stomach for a few weeks before the budget; now I wasn’t concerned about it, though, I thought it was muscular,” Lenihan said later.
“He met me one day in the Dáil. He said, ‘I have this niggly pain in my stomach. I must have eaten something at a dinner,’” says Mary O’Rourke. She told him to get himself checked out by a doctor.
Micheál Martin noticed that Lenihan wasn’t himself. “I was at a Northern Ireland meeting with him, one of those North–South ministerial meetings [in Armagh] and he was limping afterwards ... and I remember him saying he was going somewhere to lie down. And I thought nothing of it. And he said, ‘I need somewhere to lie down before I get the bus back.’”
Asked what Lenihan thought his ailment was, Martin says, “His hip.” He was feeling more and more unwell and some noticed that he had turned a little yellow. “Certainly after the budget he was very jaundiced, and he went to hospital,” says his advisor Alan Ahearne.
“A few days after the budget, I had an acute onset of jaundice,” Lenihan later said. His family had noticed changes but were not concerned at first.
According to Conor Lenihan: “We knew he was not well and he was going in for tests prior to Christmas. Yes, he had been losing weight but we were not alarmed at his weight loss because he had actually been through a very assiduous diet period and he lost weight anyway.”
Conor became worried. The following day, Wednesday, hours before he was due to spearhead legislation in the Dáil to cut the pay of public servants, Lenihan became extremely unwell in his office and was taken to the Mater Private Hospital.
Knowledge that Lenihan had been taken to hospital circulated in government circles and the minister’s office told journalists that he was due to go in for a minor procedure and that his appointment was brought forward. His press office said that he was being treated for a hernia, as it was understood this was the problem.
Lenihan was admitted to a private suite at the Mater Private. A female garda stood sentry at his door for the duration of his stay. Lenihan was cared for by Professor Gerry McEntee, a consultant surgeon with expertise in the pancreas and liver.
Lenihan underwent surgery, which officially was for a suspected hernia. Even close family members were initially relaxed at his emergency hospitalisation.
Mary O’Rourke says, “Conor Lenihan and I spoke about the 17th or 18th, and I said to Conor I don’t think it looks good.” Conor reassured her that it was a hernia. She thought, “Well that is curable, there is nothing wrong with that. It is not a big thing. But as days went by we got more news.”
During the two days he was in hospital, a shocked fifty-year-old Lenihan and his wife, Patricia, had to quickly adjust to the news that he was now battling a fatal cancer which was deemed by his doctors to be inoperable.
“They are not able to operate on it at this stage because it is very close to a blood vessel. So all of that was a great shock to me when I heard it, as any of these things are to anyone who has had a warning of this type.”
Mary Harney recalls speaking to the minister for finance during those days. “He’d been sick, he was out of action for a day or two and somebody said to me ‘Brian Lenihan is in hospital, he is unwell’, so I sent him a text and he called me up ... he didn’t tell me what was wrong with him but he said the following: ‘Mary, you’re so right about the cancer centres.’ First of all he said, ‘Thanks for your text I appreciate it, hopefully I’ll be coming home tomorrow’ ... he never said ‘I have cancer’ but he left me in no doubt that he had.” Lenihan left hospital and asked Cowen for a private word after a meeting in Government Buildings soon after he returned to work on Wednesday.
Lenihan told the taoiseach that the stomach pain which had hospitalised him the week before was far more serious than first thought. They went into Cowen’s personal office. Lenihan said he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I went to the taoiseach as soon as I was released from hospital and I explained the position,” Lenihan recalled in an interview. “He was very upset to hear of my bad news but he indicated that he was anxious [that I would] see my way to continue to serve, and I weighed up the options.” Lenihan was touched by the warm and generous support Cowen offered him.
Cowen spoke to us at length, for the first time, about his thoughts and feelings at this emotional time.
“Brian [Lenihan] was typically Brian, he was very matter of fact about it,” he says. “Obviously he was concerned about Ireland, he was anxious about his family.” Lenihan told the taoiseach that he wanted to continue. “He was very anxious about wanting to stay on in the job; his capacity wasn’t in any way impaired,” says Cowen. “He had this health challenge, a serious health challenge. But he felt there were prospects to continue.”
Assessing Lenihan’s description of the disease, Cowen was satisfied that the man he had chosen as his lieutenant at Finance must continue the fight. “It was at the entrance of the pancreas and not in the pancreas itself; he was explaining that it was going to require a lot of attention, but if he was satisfied in his own frame of mind that this was what he wanted to do, then I had no problem with that. He had great capacity,” says Cowen. Though the prognosis was stark, Lenihan’s natural optimism allowed him to continue his job unhindered.
Harney says, “My other memory of him was I don’t think he’d any expectation that he was going to die as quickly as he did. He lived ... and he was committed, as if he didn’t have the illness. He got a little bit tired, no more than any normal person would, putting in those hours.”
His colleagues did not see him flag in energy. “He seemed to work every hour that God would send him. The man was very clever, of course, and he was very much on top of his job. I saw no evidence that his illness was interfering with his capacity for work or his judgement,” Harney says. “I think it a sense of the decency of Brian Cowen that he didn’t even raise the issue. Many others might have asked him to move on ... but also it was the right thing as Lenihan was up to the job,” she adds.
Cowen says the thought of asking Lenihan to step aside because of his illness simply didn’t arise. “I have heard people say, ‘Why didn’t you consider changing the position?’ That didn’t occur to me at all. Particularly given the type of man you were dealing with. He was quite determined, willing to continue on and his capacity wasn’t being affected in fairness.”
Cowen’s innate decency was to the fore and there was no detailed inquisition of the sick man. “He came to me and says ‘Listen, you need to know this.’ I didn’t pry into health records or anything like that. I didn’t go any further than that. He told me what the story was and that was it. It wasn’t a case of I need to talk to his fella or talk to your doctors or anything like that. I accepted what he was saying, I had no reason to think he was being anything other than completely frank.”
Cowen and Lenihan had a personal discussion and the minister for finance spoke of his religious beliefs. “We chatted about it, I mean he was a very philosophical guy. He had a good faith, and without going into the ins and outs of it, he had figured it out. He had his own way of looking at these things. He wasn’t being in any way maudlin, he was being very straightforward. It was tough, very tough,” Cowen adds.
Cowen was always held in esteem by colleagues for the care with which he dealt with personal issues. “When Lenihan began to be ill, Cowen was very caring toward him,” says Pat Carey. “Brian Cowen was and is a very kind man, despite the portrayal, sometimes not helped by himself.”
Many people in the political and media community became aware of Lenihan’s condition over the course of Christmas week. The independent television station TV3 had obtained information that made its journalists believe that they should broadcast a story about Lenihan’s health.
Brian’s son, Tom, then at school in Belvedere College, later recalled being told by his father of the cancer: “I found out on Christmas Day, yeah; I think the report was Stephen’s Day. There wasn’t sufficient time to tell the people he wanted to tell. You tell your immediate family don’t you? It was pretty shocking. But it was a matter of public interest, the health of the minister for finance. I was doing training for rugby with the school and we brought Clare in, my sister. We gathered around and he told us he had a growth. I said, ‘Is it cancer?’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ At that time I was quite hopeful that he would make it.”
Conor Lenihan reveals that he, too, was present with his brother on Christmas Day, but due to different family troubles. “I am a separated person or was a separated person,” he says, “so I had nowhere to go for Christmas dinner.” Because of the pressure from the TV station, Brian wasn’t given the opportunity to tell his mother, Ann, in person that he had terminal cancer.
“My mother was actually abroad and normally I would go to my mother’s for Christmas dinner. I was invited by Patricia to join her and Brian and the kids and the family for dinner on Christmas day.” Brian phoned his mother to inform her of the impending broadcast.
Conor sat with the family in their living room as Brian, left with no other alternative, broke the news to his shocked children.
“It was a very difficult situation for him to address. I think it would have been nicer if the media had not gone and done what they did,” he says. That afternoon the two brothers went for a walk along the nearby soccer pitches in the late afternoon dusk. There were four years between them; Brian was fifty then and Conor forty-six. The family had moved from Athlone when Brian was twelve and Conor eight, and they had spent their teens kicking ball together on those pitches in Castleknock.
“He and I had a habit of kind of going out for walks,” Conor says. “That time at Christmas we went out for a walk at the pitches up the road from him and we wandered around and then got into a car. He drove himself and we drove around the constituency and he was reminiscing about all of the infrastructure and stuff he had got in the constituency, where he had secured assistance for clubs. So he was kind of reviewing and looking back at things. And he had become a little bit more, how would you put it, nostalgic.”
Conor says he maintained that composure around his family. “He was very anxious not to be maudlin or emotional because he was aware that that would upset his family members around him. I think his main thing was that he wanted to get on and do his job. There were kind of emotional times.”
On the morning of St Stephen’s Day, a Saturday, the Lenihan family braced themselves for the worst. “It was terrible, but we did know,’ says Mary O’Rourke. “But to see it naked in front of your eyes, visually. Brian was very good about that. He never held it in for them or anything. He was very forbearing. I got a call from Ann, his mother, on Christmas night, telling me it was going to happen. It was awful.”
The Lenihan family also questioned the need for TV3 to feature an extended conversation with John Crown, a consultant medical oncologist at St Vincent’s Hospital who was later elected a senator. “They had Crown on,” says O’Rourke. “I couldn’t understand Crown. Crown wasn’t his doctor. I thought that was very unethical. What right did he have to talk about him? They didn’t have to do it at all.”
While Lenihan’s wife, Patricia, and their children were trying to come to terms with his illness, his extended family and political colleagues were furious at the crassness and insensitivity of the TV3 broadcast.
“We were not as forgiving about it as Brian, we were livid,” says O’Rourke, and years later her hurt is still palpable.
Lenihan’s junior ministerial colleague Dara Calleary is even more condemnatory: “TV3 were disgusting.How dare they, how dare they? Really, really disgusting. It was completely unfair on his family, and on him. What they did was put a gun to his head, ‘tell your family what we know’, that is what TV3 did. Nobody ever wants to tell that news, especially over Christmas. He should have been given a few days. You know it was a matter of public interest, but ....
Hell At the Gates, by Daniel McConnell and John Lee is published by Mercier Press
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