Brian Lenihan family’s intervention is simply bonkers

The recent move by the aunt and brother of the late minister for finance Brian Lenihan to represent his views would make a joke of the banking inquiry, writes Michael Clifford

Brian Lenihan family’s intervention is simply bonkers

WHO put Brian Lenihan on trial? Recently, we have somehow been given the impression that his reputation, and legacy, are on trial at the banking inquiry.

Last Friday, a solicitor’s letter was dispatched to the clerk of the inquiry on behalf of Mary O’Rourke and Conor Lenihan, respectively the aunt and brother of the late former minister for finance.

Apparently, they want to have an input into the inquiry in order to ensure that somebody is there to represent the views of the deceased man.

Mrs O’Rourke told RTÉ that Brian Lenihan “confided” in both her and his brother Conor. And now, they want to ensure his legacy gets a fair shake when the inquiry deals with the night of the bank guarantee in particular.

READ MORE: Relatives of Brian Lenihan look for right of reply from banking inquiry .  

This is bonkers. There is no other word for it but bonkers.

Notwithstanding the totally understandable protective instinct of a bereaved family, the notion that an aunt and brother of Mr Lenihan should have an input would render the inquiry a joke.

Is their request based on the fact that they are both retired politicians? Many elected representatives confide their most inner political thoughts to those close to them who have never run for office. What if one of the other principles from the night in question had since died?

Would it then have been incumbent on the inquiry to invite in a widow or offspring to tell what the deceased man thought — or confided — about the events in question?

At a time when some are attempting to popularise notions of “political insiders”, this kind of stuff is the last thing that the political establishment surely needs.

Then there is the substance of the matter at issue. The banking inquiry is bound by strict rules in light of a 2011 referendum. Nobody can be found culpable of any wrongdoing. No adverse finding can be made on anybody. The inquiry’s brief is to come up with a narrative of what exactly happened, ostensibly to learn lessons for the future. Nobody’s reputation is on the line.

One thing that may well have prompted the intervention of the two Lenihan family members is a revelation from the governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan when he appeared before the inquiry in January.

On that occasion, Honohan said Brian Lenihan had told him that he, Lenihan, had wanted to have Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide nationalised on the night of the guarantee. Probed further at the inquiry, Honohan said the former minister added that he had been overruled.

The only figure senior to Lenihan on the night in question, and empowered to overrule him, was then taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Cowen has disputed this version of events. He did so publicly last Friday, hours after the Lenihans had contacted the inquiry, but sources close to Cowen had indicated sometime ago that he would dispute it.

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On Friday, Cowen did deny anybody was overruled.

“Obviously, Brian [Lenihan] had some views. We discussed them. There were problems with nationalisation and there were problems with guarantee.

“There was no one who could say there was one correct thing to do. If that happened, everything would have been a lot different.”

To which the only response can be — So what? So what if Lenihan did push for nationalisation? It happened within months of the guarantee anyway.

So what if Lenihan did say that to Honohan? Brian Lenihan bravely worked himself to the bone through a fatal disease. The unfortunate man knew he was dying, and that he had been thrust into a key role at a time of historic upheaval.

Would it not have been natural to attempt to shape his legacy in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be around when the long view of his actions were being analysed? Is it possible that such knowledge might have prompted him to make claims that he might perceive to cast him in a better light? In reality, it doesn’t really matter what he said to Honohan because that is not evidence of anything that actually happened.

So what if there is dispute over the precise details of who said what on that night? The bank guarantee is one element of the banking collapse which is the subject of the inquiry, but the significance attached to the decision taken that night has been blown out of all proportion.

By September 28, 2008, the goose was cooked. The disastrous policies followed since 2002, the lack of regulation, the greedy and reckless lending, had all long ensured that the country was facing into an economic nightmare. Mistakes were most likely made that night, particularly in the reach of the guarantee, but none of that had a major impact on what ultimately transpired in the country.

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Honohan himself said as much during his second appearance at the inquiry last month.

He told the inquiry that 80%-90% of the overall hardship that was subsequently endured was “already embedded in the situation” irrespective of what decision was taken.

“The bulk of these costs could not have been avoided by a different course of action on the night of the guarantee,” he said.

To that extent, those wishing to defend Lenihan’s legacy can legitimately claim that he arrived at the inner circle less than six months previously, when the ship was already on the rocks. Irrespective of what Lenihan did or said on the night in question, his culpability in the grand scheme of things fades noticeably when set against the actions of Cowen, Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy, all of whom manned the bridge and set the course for disaster.

If anything, the long view is likely to be kinder to Lenihan than any of the other players in the political, regulatory or banking sectors.

Over the last six years, as the effects of austerity attacked society, it has been fashionable, and politically expedient, to apportion blame for the whole thing to what happened in Government Buildings on that night. Such a view makes for a handy political message but does precious little for any attempt to understand what actually happened, and guard against a repeat.

Irrespective of that fallacy, the idea that Lenihan’s closest relatives should appear to defend what he did on the night in question is still nothing short of bonkers.

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