Daniel McConnell: Remembering the minister who put the country before his own health 

For all his shortcomings, Brian Lenihan's commitment cannot be questioned and his tenure in finance will be remembered as the most significant in modern Irish history
Daniel McConnell: Remembering the minister who put the country before his own health 

Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the death of former finance minister Brian Lenihan following a high-profile battle with pancreatic cancer. Picture: James Horan/Photocall Ireland

Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the death of former finance minister Brian Lenihan following a high-profile battle with pancreatic cancer.

He was just 52 and left behind a wife, his two teenage children and a country in turmoil in the grips of the Troika and his own legacy seriously undermined.

Lenihan’s tenure as finance minister between 2008 and 2011 was consumed by the financial crisis for which he was not responsible, but had to seek to contain, through a series of savage austerity budgets, ultimately without success.

Very personal sense of failure

In his final interview before his death, Lenihan, in eloquent terms, set out the very personal sense of failure he felt about having been the finance minister who surrendered the country’s economic sovereignty in 2010.

Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the death of former finance minister Brian Lenihan following a high-profile battle with pancreatic cancer. Picture: James Horan/Photocall Ireland
Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the death of former finance minister Brian Lenihan following a high-profile battle with pancreatic cancer. Picture: James Horan/Photocall Ireland

"I have a very vivid memory of going to Brussels on the final Monday and being on my own at the airport and looking at the snow gradually thawing and thinking to myself: this is terrible. No Irish minister has ever had to do this before," he said in a BBC radio interview.

"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,” he added.

Brian Lenihan with press officer Eoin Dorgan at a press conference in Government Buildings in September 2008 where he announced the government had decided to guarantee deposits up to €100,000 in Irish banks. Picture: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie
Brian Lenihan with press officer Eoin Dorgan at a press conference in Government Buildings in September 2008 where he announced the government had decided to guarantee deposits up to €100,000 in Irish banks. Picture: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

His appointment as finance minister in 2008 by the new taoiseach Brian Cowen was a surprise, especially given Lenihan was no economist, and had been less than a year in his dream post as justice minister.

“I think he did regret leaving Justice, he was very happy there, it was the kind of ministry which he would obviously enjoy given his legal background. I think he was surprised when Cowen asked him to be minister for finance,” his brother and former minister Conor Lenihan said in 2016.

Current Taoiseach Micheál Martin recalled that Lenihan approached him saying he was sure the Cork man was to be appointed in Finance.

“I had a very good relationship with Brian [Lenihan], and Brian came to me at the time and says, ‘Jeez, I thought you’d be the minister for finance’, but we kind of had chats about it. I thought that Brian Cowen had to do what he had to do to bring in freshness and new faces and create his own stamp on the Cabinet,” mr Martin said.

Appointed just as the country went off the economic cliff, Lenihan, having not been at Cabinet when all the bad decisions had been taken between 2002 and 2008, was given space and political cover.

People hated Fianna Fáil for what they did but looked to Lenihan with hope.

Given Cowen’s refusal to ‘play the media game’ and sell the message, Lenihan felt the need to fill the vacuum and became the fulcrum within government at a time of extraordinary crisis.

Over a series of five budgetary interventions in two and a half years, he slashed more than €20bn in government spending, far eclipsing the budgets from Fine Gael and Labour which followed.

Terminal illness

Lenihan’s stature grew as Cowen’s plummeted but just as he seemed to be getting on top of the situation in terms of the public finances, he was struck down with his terminal illness.

As if his own personal tragedy was mirroring the condition of the country, Lenihan won much praise for continuing on at his post. 

But with the passage of time, it is a legitimate question as to whether it was appropriate that he was allowed to remain on.

Cowen said in 2016 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,” he said.

Whatever about that decision, Lenihan for a short period, became a quasi-saint to many in this country, given his determination to fight the good fight.

Failure to deal with banking sector

Whatever success, if it can be called that, he achieved in terms of the public finances, the passage of the 10 years has shown his primary failure was in dealing with the banking sector.

Despite throwing the backing of the State behind the banks, he was repeatedly deceived as to the scale of their losses, far too lenient on those who caused the crash and his failure to contain the losses much sooner ultimately led Ireland into the humiliation of the Troika bailout in 2010.

At the end, Lenihan was caught seeking to spin too many plates in the air at the one time and they all came crashing down.

Unhappy with Cowen’s leadership, despite his illness, he plotted secretly to seize power only to bottle it at the final hurdle. Denials that he was engaging in a coup were exposed as lies by TDs including John McGuinness, who revealed the extent of his manoeuvres.

Lenihan was also badly damaged by the then Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan going on RTÉ radio to reveal that the Troika bailout was happening, despite official denials from Government.

Then taoiseach Brian Cowen with finance minister Brian Lenihan in July 2010. Picture: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ied
Then taoiseach Brian Cowen with finance minister Brian Lenihan in July 2010. Picture: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ied

Ultimately, the end was inevitable and in November 2010, Ireland having been bounced into the bailout by France and Germany, officially sought help.

While the ECB denied any shady behaviour or overt pressure, Lenihan made clear his view.

"The European Central Bank appeared to have arrived at a view that Ireland needed to be totally nailed down," he said.

When asked if the ECB bounced Ireland into a bailout, Mr Lenihan responded: "I would say that, yes."

Badly beaten in the leadership contest to succeed Brian Cowen in early 2011, Lenihan faced into the general election knowing his and his party’s fate was bleak.

Visibly ailing

Having been the only Fianna Fáil TD to be returned in Dublin, a visibly ailing Lenihan relinquished the reins of office to Fine Gael’s Michael Noonan and Labour’s Brendan Howlin.

While named as Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesman in opposition, the truth is, Lenihan’s health was deteriorating fast.

I rang him in March 2011 to see how he was and to ask his advice on a story I was working on at the time.

His voice was noticeably frail and weak. “I’m still alive anyway, for now.” The “for now,” has stayed with me ever since.

He thanked me for my professional courtesy during his time as finance minister and we ended the call.

I saw him once more on the last day he was in Leinster House in April 2011.

Frankly, he looked awful. It was clear to many he was saying his goodbyes to colleagues and to the building which had been so dominant in his life. Like his father before him, Brian Lenihan’s devotion to his party and to the country was his greatest strength but also his great undoing.

For all his shortcomings, his commitment cannot be questioned and his tenure in finance will be remembered as the most significant in modern Irish history.

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