Brian Lenihan: Full of life, he was a true people’s man


Brian Lenihan was a man of superb intellect with a massive store of knowledge. He was hugely read and very erudite, but he wore it lightly.

Many of my colleagues at the Bar wondered what he was doing in politics — he sacrificed a huge drop in his standard of living to go into politics, but he was more interested in public service than self-service.

I did ask him when the story came out about his illness why he wanted to continue in a very stressful job as Finance Minister. His answer was: “There’s something growing inside me and I’m determine to beat it — but what would I be doing, sitting at home, listening to Mozart and thinking about dying?”

He needed that job, it was his reason for getting up in the morning and he gave everything to it. There was too much life in him to do otherwise.

He had an amazing natural curiosity and having a conversation or going out with him was always an uplifting experience. He’d talk about 17th Century legal precedents, quote Shakespeare, and what he said was always apt.

He was what the English called “clubbable”, if you wanted to pick a few people to go out with for dinner or a drink, Brian Lenihan would be top of the list. He was so full of life.

Two weeks before he got sick he brought in the 2009 Budget. I remember he asked me if I would handle the financial resolutions that have to be taken on budget night and I did. I finished at midnight and I was amazed to find he was still in Leinster House, and he asked if I wanted to go up to Doheny & Nesbitt’s.

I thought it was too late, but he said the civil servants and TDs and the media would all be up there. I had four pints and said I was going home, and he said: “I thought you were able to drink, O’Dea.”

He loved that atmosphere, the people and the chat.

As Minister for Finance he was thrown in at the deep end, and he wasn’t helped by the banks who didn’t give him the right information.

That made a task which was almost impossible 10 times worse.

Ireland has been widely admired for grappling with the deficit; we cut €8.8bn and he and I knew that it was not going to make us very popular.

I remember those long cabinet meetings. My patience was tried. Every minister wants to be seen as a success, so it was very difficult for us all. But when it finished, we could go away or go home. He was a sick man at the time, but he would then go off to long side-meetings to try to square the circle. That takes dedication and great patience.

At the time of the first bank guarantee he was incredibly calm. Any approach he took to the problem he took in good faith. Only time will tell, but I think that history will judge him kindly.

The jury is out on it but, faced with that immediate crisis and based on the information he had at the time, I think he made the right decision — was there any other decision he could realistically have taken?

He came in to my office recently to talk about the party and what were we doing to revive it. He had an enormous amount of detail about every constituency in the country, and he offered to help me in one particularly constituency that I didn’t know so well — “Leave that to me, I’ll sort it out and then get you to come over and talk to the people,” he said to me. Sadly he won’t be able to do that now.

He’s a great loss to his family, to his many friends at the Bar and in politics, to Fianna Fail and to Ireland.

There’s a story that I think typifies Brian. He was standing on the pathway on Merrion Street one evening waiting for the State car to collect him and bring him home. Two young fellas coming from a soccer match, who didn’t know who he was, asked him where they could get a bus.

Brian asked them where they were going and they said Blanchardstown.

At that moment the State car pulled up to the pavement.

“Sure, you’re constituents of mine,” he said to them. “Hop in and I’ll give you a lift home,” and off they went with him sitting in the front and the astonished young lads sitting in the back of the State car chatting to the Minister for Finance. That was the real Brian Lenihan.

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