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What we learned about Brian Lenihan from last night's RTÉ documentary

‘Lenihan: A Legacy’ looked back on the former finance minister’s life and times.

BRIAN LENIHAN WAS remembered by some of those who knew him best in a special RTÉ programme broadcast last night covering his life and career.

The former finance minister’s sad death in 2011 has led to much discussion about his impact at a time of great economic upheaval for the country and his ultimate legacy.

Lenihan: A Legacy painted a portrait of a man who was not your typical Fianna Fáil politician and whose inheritance of a party political dynasty did not come without its own personal challenges.

Here’s what we found out…

He wasn’t always Brian…

His brother Conor, his indomitable aunt Mary, and childhood friends recalled the early years of Brian or Brían (pron. Breen), as he was known then, growing up in Athlone. He was an enthusiastic if not particularly talented soccer player. The family also had to deal with the tragic death of brother Mark from leukemia when he was just five. 

lenihan bros gif Source: RTÉ

After losing his Dáil seat in Longford-Westmeath in the 1970s, Brian Lenihan senior moved his family to the relatively new suburbs of West Dublin to reignite his political ambitions. It was at this time that Brian junior began to take an interest in politics.

O’Rourke noted that “for a young man, I thought him very old. I thought he was old beyond his years”. Conor said that his brother became exposed to politics after his father fell ill and he began to take his constituency clinics. 

lenihan 4 The Lenihans: Brian sr, Conor, and Brian jr Source: RTÉ

Not a people person 

Lenihan’s former personal assistant, Marian Quinlan, recalled how her first impression of her boss was that he was “uncomfortable” with people. “I always got the impression that his mind was elsewhere,” she said.

Not an easy path to the Dáil 

When his father died in 1994, Brian junior ran for his seat in Dublin West. It was a heated and tight battle with Socialist Joe Higgins and the young Lenihan was by no means a dead cert.

His lack of people skills didn’t help, according to those close to that by-election bid. In several somewhat bitter contributions, Bertie Ahern said that Brian was a “difficult” candidate who wouldn’t always put in the graft expected of Dáil hopefuls.

lenihan elected Source: RTÉ

“The more intellectual they are, the more work they don’t want to do,” Ahern said.

Lenihan won the seat after a vote pact with Fine Gael helped put him over the line. The defeated Joe Higgins noted that once it was confirmed that Lenihan had won Bertie arrived in the constituency to make sure people knew it was down to him.

lenihan 6 Bertie arriving in Dublin West as Lenihan takes his father's seat. Note a young Micheál Martin in the background. Source: RTÉ

Or a good relationship with Bertie 

It’s not hard to deduce from last night’s programme that Ahern and Lenihan didn’t really see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. Olivia O’Leary summed up how Brian’s love for classical music did not endear him to Ahern. We all know that Bertie was a man of the people who loved Man U and GAA.

Conor Lenihan said that he would sometimes hear his brother giving out about the then-taoiseach. While, for his part, Ahern said that Lenihan had wanted to be the minister for justice but that he told him “on another day”.

Ahern later said that others in Fianna Fáil who were senior counsel were not getting cabinet posts. “That brings home that you’re not the only best boy in the class,” Ahern said.

lenihan 5

An unexpected appointment

Brian Lenihan did not expect to be made minister for finance in 2008, according to Conor. Economist Constantin Gurdgiev said that at that stage the government was managing a process of denial about the scale of the criss in Irish banks.

For his part, Lenihan was unsure whether he could trust what the banks were telling him. Former cabinet colleague Noel Dempsey said Lenihan told him he did not know whether the banks were trying to fool him. It was indicative of the turmoil at the time, Dempsey said.

lenihan finance

When negotiations aren’t negotiations 

Political analyst Jonny Fallon said that Lenihan did not believe negotiations on a bailout were underway until he was involved in them. Troika officials negotiating with their Irish government counterparts did not constitute formal bailout talks in Lenihan’s mind. Which is why you had ministers doing this when asked if a bailout was imminent:

nope nope nope Source: RTÉ

Of course this position was undermined when Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan went on Morning Ireland in November 2010 to reveal that talks were taking place. The bank boss recalled how Lenihan rang him afterwards:

He called me up shortly after I’d been on the radio and said, with a kind of tone of exasperation, ‘I can’t contradict you, I can’t disagree with what you said.’ I said, ‘you certainly can’t, because it’s the truth.’ He hadn’t really any answer.

lenihan 1 Source: RTÉ

His father’s son

The programme spent some time focussing on Brian Lenihan senior’s failed bid for the presidency in 1990 and the humiliation he suffered at the hands of then-taoiseach Charlie Haughey. Broadcaster Sean Duignan noted that after that everything went downhill for the former candidate before his death in 1994. 

lenihan aras

The private memory of a very public betrayal remained, the programme said. Later, Fallon noted how Brian junior had felt his father had missed out on a lot and could have been leader of the party.

When discontent with Brian Cowen’s leadership grew in 2011, Lenihan mulled a leadership bid while publicly pledging support to the then-taoiseach. A conflict between loyalty to the party and personal ambition emerged. It was something Brian senior had also grappled with years earlier.

Battling cancer

Lenihan gave some thought to giving up on politics when he became ill, according to Noel Whelan. But like his father before him, he chose to carry on. His failed leadership bid was criticised by broadcaster Matt Cooper who expressed doubts about his state of mind in pursuing such a role when his health was deteriorating.

But undeterred by losing out to Micheál Martin, Lenihan mounted his Dáil re-election bid in February 2011. Amidst a wave of anti-government sentiment he was the only Fianna Fáil TD returned in Dublin.

lenihan 10 Source: RTÉ

Unable to see off the ravages of cancer, Lenihan died on 10 June 2011.

Quinlan recalled clearing out his constituency office and removing a sign on the window with a hairdryer. She said she has no doubt he would have been party leader.

“I’m sad for him that none of that ever happened,” she concludes.

Watch the programme in full here > 

Read: Mary O’Rourke putting the Banking Inquiry “under notice” about Brian Lenihan evidence

Read: Patrick Honohan recalls chats with Brian Lenihan before and after guarantee

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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