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Brian Lenihan

Below is an article I wrote in 2015 about Brian Lenihan and I thought it would be appropriate to republish it here on the 10th anniversary of his passing which falls on Thursday 10th June 2021.

One morning, before Cabinet, the Fianna Fail ministers were gathering in the Sycamore Rooms for a breakfast meeting. While reading the letters page in the Irish Times, I noticed a letter that consisted of a sentence in Latin. I threw it at Leno. “You’re a classics man Brian. What does that mean.” “You’ve got me in a good mood,” he replied, “I was reading Cicero this morning.”

I thought he probably had been. He was a Trinity scholar and loved language. I had the sense that he relished the challenge of Finance for all the new language and jargon that he would have to absorb; sovereign risk, credit default swaps, inter-bank borrowing rates.

He put on the spectacles and examined the text. “They have the wrong declension”.

I thought they probably had. Actually he wore his intelligence lightly. You didn’t have a sense of someone trying to show off. If anything, he seemed to make a conscious effort to remember that he wasn’t in the common room in Trinity but surrounded by a broader cross-section of society.

I didn’t know Brian Lenihan Jr especially well, just as a colleague during those difficult years 2008 to 2011 but I wanted to share my perspective on him on this anniversary of his passing.

The component parts of greatness are talent, charisma and ambition. But the binding agent is luck. It is his bad luck that the accursed guarantee is all that stands between universal acclaim and noisy dispute over his legacy. Bad political decisions over a decade, reckless lending and bad regulation contributed to the vast majority of the hardship experienced since 2008. All of this would have had to be faced regardless of the guarantee.

In the long term, it will be clear that he was the unfortunate inheritor of an economic disaster as well as the architect of recovery. In the short term, he will only be remembered for the former.

In 2010 his 4 year plan for recovery was overtaken by the IMF but not changed substantially either by the Troika or the subsequent Government.

On one occasion, prior to a meeting to consider Trichet’s letter that amounted to abandoning the ECB’s role as a lender of last resort, I chatted to him in an ante-room off the Cabinet corridor. He spoke to me about how the EU was supposed to evolve in response to crises and that solidarity with member-states should be a central principle. The different treatment of Spain, confronted with the same difficulties told a lot about the EU’s attitude to smaller member-states.

In spite of the terrible frustrations of those days in October 2010, weighed down with such a burden of responsibilities, I never saw him lose his cool. It was a quality he seemed to share with his father.

A portrait of his father hangs near the members’ restaurant in Leinster House. The pose is pensive as he gazes up at the artist who in turn captures Lenihan senior’s curiosity. What is remarkable about it is that it is the only portrait in the building of a former member that didn’t hold some office that would otherwise qualify him for portraiture. There are Taosigh, Presidents, Ceann Comhairligh but only one former member.

I don’t know how this distinction came to pass but I am sure that it would have required the cross party approval of some procedural committee. I do know why this distinction was afforded. At the heart of it was a quality that father and son shared. To call it likeability is not enough. I recall Vincent Browne telling me that Brian Jr was uninsultable. They both possessed bonhomie and a joy for life that made their early deaths all the more tragic. All that came in contact with them were convinced that they were using more track than the rest of us and little deserved their fate.

His illness was understood as a metaphor for national decline. Nevertheless, many people enduring desperate hardship after the collapse drew inspiration from his incredible sense of duty in the face of the responsibility he bore and the tragedy he was confronted with.

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