Brian Lenihan: Admired and respected Irish finance minister who struggled to cope with the economic crisis he inherited
Tuesday 14 June 2011
The last years of the life of the former Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan contained a double tragedy for himself and his country. First, he inherited national economic devastation; then he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His death at the age of 52 has removed one of Ireland's most promising politicians. For several years he battled simultaneously against the worst economic problems in the history of the state and against ill health.
In the end he was overwhelmed by both, witnessing with dismay his Fianna Fail party's unceremonious ejection from office. But his death has produced a wave of compassion in recognition of the spirit and fortitude he displayed in meeting his challenges.
Many believe he made errors in his attempts to stave off economic disaster, and certainly Ireland has been left with a mountain of debt which some fear it can never hope to pay off. Debate still rages, among both experts and the public, on whether his critical decision to guarantee deposits in Irish banks, which meant the country taking responsibility for their gigantic debts, avoided complete collapse or made a dire situation even worse.
But he won much personal admiration, even among those who believed he got it wrong. This was evident in the recent general election, when he was alone in Fianna Fail in keeping his seat in the entire Dublin area.
He was ranked among the best and brightest in Irish politics, apparently destined for its glittering prizes. The Lenihan family had for generations been a Fianna Fail dynasty. His grandfather was a senator while his father, also Brian, was for decades one of Dublin's foremost political figures. Brian senior, who also died of cancer, was deputy Prime Minister and a close associate of the former PM Charles Haughey. But while Haughey was notoriously corrupt, the Lenihans were not associated with wrongdoing.
Several other family members have also been prominent in politics, establishing a family reputation for exceptional shrewdness. Brian Lenihan was noted for being particularly well-read and having fluent French. He excelled academically, taking firsts in law from both Trinity College, Dublin and Cambridge and going on to become a senior barrister. But family tradition exerted a strong gravitational pull and he left the law as the politics in his DNA came to the fore.
When his father died in 1995 aged 64 Lenihan, in line with Irish political tradition, stood for his seat and won it. Promotion came more slowly than had been expected, with the Fianna Fail Taoiseach Bertie Ahern showing reluctance to aid his career. One journalist noted at the weekend that Ahern "was suspicious of a bar library know-all with a Cambridge education who spoke Latin and read Proust."
But Lenihan's talents were unmistakable, and he won friends and influenced people with his sense of humour, affable personality and natural courtesy. He performed well on TV and – unlike some in his party – possessed what has been described as penetrating intelligence and evident honesty. He served for several years as minister for children, establishing his administrative competence, before his 2007 promotion to the cabinet as Minister for Justice. Ahern's departure and replacement as Prime Minister by Brian Cowen proved a turning point for Lenihan. Cowen gave him an accelerated promotion, appointing him Minister for Finance, the No 2 post in government.
But his misfortune, as he himself described it, was to get the job just as Ireland's boom disastrously collapsed, and he barely had time to read himself into his new brief before the crash came. He took over, he said, "as the building boom was coming to a shuddering end." A recklessly overheated construction industry was one of his problems, but it was just part of a far wider and deeper malaise.
Since he had never held an economic ministry he had not helped frame the disastrous policies which landed Ireland in such trouble, but he was landed with the primary responsibility for putting things right. Ahern dropped out of politics while Cowen, clearly overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, was of little help. Civil servants, advisors, bankers and other financial experts were similarly at sea: some of them had helped create the difficulties and none of them knew how to fix them.
Some, especially bankers, appear to have been less than frank in informing Lenihan how bad things really were. This helps explain why he would sometimes make what turned out to be ridiculously optimistic pronouncements. He once declared that the economy had turned the corner, just before it became obvious that things were far worse than was appreciated.
None the less, he was given much public credit for tackling what were probably impossible problems. At the same time the government plummeted drastically in the opinion polls as the public, and indeed international opinion, lost confidence in its abilities.
The news of Lenihan's cancer diagnosis was another huge blow to Irish credibility, and indeed national morale, since he was widely regarded as the only figure who might turn things round. His defiant decision to remain in Ireland's most demanding job brought him further respect.
But his move to extend a guarantee to the banks, some of which were in chronic trouble, did not end the sense that the economy was in virtual freefall. He boasted that his guarantee would be "the cheapest bail-out in the world so far" but the cost soared into many billions. Eventually, having no choice, the government was forced into talks with the IMF and other international institutions about a rescue mission. But Cowen, Lenihan and other ministers maintained, in the face of the obvious facts, that no such negotiation was going on.
As they were eventually forced to admit, a bail-out was looming. Its arrival, entailing as it did a surrender of financial sovereignty, was accompanied by a wave of anger from a public which believed it had been deceived. All this ruined the remaining shreds of official credibility. Lenihan was shattered, later describing how he thought to himself, as he went cap-in-hand to the international money men, "This is terrible. No Irish minister has ever had to do this before."
His nightmare did not end there, for the terms of the bail-out compelled him to introduce a series of particularly harsh budgets. He also had to make it clear that the financial pain would only get worse in the years ahead. After Cowen retired he stood for the Fianna Fail leadership, but the party passed him over in favour of Micheal Martin, who had not been involved in the economic calamities and had no health problems. No one yet knows whether Martin can rebuild the shattered party.
As for Brian Lenihan, doubts still linger over the wisdom of some ofthe drastic measures he took in fraught times. But he departed the stage with a wave of affection and sympathy, his reputation for dignity and courage intact.
Brian Joseph Lenihan, barrister and politician: born 21 May 1959; Minister of State for Children, Republic of Ireland 2002-07, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform 2007-08, Minister for Finance2008-11, Deputy Leader, Fianna Fail 2011; married (one son, one daughter); died 10 June 2011.
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