Lenihan must abandon tribalism for common good

Loyalty to Fianna Fáil and its leader was Brian Lenihan snr’s lodestone. His son must take a new direction, writes ELAINE BYRNE in the IRISH TIMES April 27 2010

‘WILL THE Taoiseach indicate when the legislation on wandering horses will be introduced in the House?”

When Brian Lenihan made his first, rather unremarkable, Dáil contribution 14 years ago this month, he probably did not envisage the remarkable circumstances he currently finds himself in.

Acquaintances of the Minister for Finance describe him as singleminded. His absolute selfbelief is characterised by his own sense of defiant patriotism and resolute belief in his abilities to turn the corner of economic instability.

But what motivates him?

In the foreword to his father’s 1991 memoir, For the Record, Brian Lenihan snr quotes from Shakespeare’s Othello to explain the underlying motivation to break with Irish convention and pen a political autobiography: “He that filches from me my good name, robs me of that, which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.” Reputation has always been a deeply rooted emotional ingredient of the Irish psyche.

The entire premise of Lenihan’s book is founded on a profound sense of betrayal, a central theme of Othello, regarding the controversial 1990 presidential election. The then taoiseach, Charles Haughey, unceremoniously dismissed his tánaiste following contradictory versions about Lenihan’s alleged attempts to bring undue pressure to bear on president Patrick Hillery in 1982 regarding the dissolution of the Dáil.

Despite the intense personal hurt Lenihan must have felt towards Haughey, he could never bring himself to blame the man to whom he was so blindly loyal. Instead he held the Progressive Democrats singularly responsible for blackmailing Haughey and insisting on his resignation from public life.

Fianna Fáil never did accountability very well.

Seán Doherty’s infamous Nighthawks interview two years later on RTÉ television would reveal just how nakedly Haughey had scarified Lenihan’s career for his own political ambition. When the Moriarty tribunal found that Haughey had “personally misappropriated” funds intended for Brian Lenihan’s liver transplant in the United States, the Lenihan family displayed extraordinary fidelity to Haughey by their silence on the tribunal’s findings.

Before he died, Haughey specifically requested Brian Lenihan jnr to do the first reading at his funeral Mass, which incidentally was from the Prophet Jeremiah, whose mission from God it was to warn against the worship of idols.

The popularity Brian Lenihan’s father enjoyed was phenomenal. Although poor health prevented him from campaigning in the 1989 general election, he recorded his highest first-preference vote in his almost 30 year political career. The dignity and courage which he faced his illness with was quietly rewarded with widespread public affection.

When he died in 1995, the newspaper headlines were dominated with themes about his “warm and charming personality” to the “Tributes as a man with no enemies, of immense loyalty and common touch”.

The public outpourings of sympathy spoke of Lenihan’s political acumen as the ultimate fixer, his tough inner resilience, his extraordinary abilities to communicate and his unfailingly good humoured “no problem” approach to life which insisted on optimism.

Garrett FitzGerald perceptively noted about how he “never took himself too seriously; indeed some would say that he did not take himself seriously enough”.

An opinion shared at the time by The Irish Times political correspondent, Mark Brennock, who wrote that Lenihan “may be remembered more for his easy personality and affable manner, which made him popular in all political parties, than for his political achievement”.

Although Lenihan was a minister for 17 years and a central political figure in Irish politics for three decades, his consistent underplay of his own intelligence have made it difficult for historians to point to a body of legislative accomplishments.

As he approaches his 51st birthday, I wonder if Brian Lenihan appraises his father’s career in the context of the extraordinary decisions he now has to make.

The special commission on taxation will report in November, three thousand million is promised in budget cuts in December and aspects of the McCarthy report may yet be implemented. The Croke Park public service deal hangs in the balance. Whispers of prolonged and disruptive strike action grow louder.

Thanks to Lenihan’s determination not to let Anglo fail, €4 billion of the up to €23 billion Anglo bailout has granted Ireland the biggest deficit recorded in Europe last year. Our deficit is now even larger than Greece’s at 14.3 per cent of GDP. Lenihan’s gentle description of this as “a technical reclassification” does not serve to unite public solidarity nor facilitate public cohesion.

Yet as he told George Hook recently on Newstalk radio: “I have to take responsibility. . . I apologise to the extent to which the Government played a part in this” – ie the decisions which contributed to the collapse in the Irish economy. Although the Taoiseach “regrets” the recession, he has not acknowledged any responsibility for the specific decisions he took as Minister of Finance between 2004 and 2008.

Will Lenihan forsake his default tribal loyalty and bring his boss, his former and current cabinet colleagues and those that gave advice, to account when the terms of reference for the banking inquiry are decided upon in June?

“I have done the state some service”, someone once said. Let’s wait and see.

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