10 June 2011

Brian Lenihan, Jr.

The world today is, I fear, a poorer place than it was yesterday.

I learned this morning that Brian Lenihan, until recently Ireland's Minister for Finance, had died. He'd not long turned 52, and had had pancreatic cancer since late 2009. Our Opposition has been weakened, and not just in numbers, but in quality too. We need good people on the Opposition benches as much as the Government ones, and today we've lost one of our very best.

I'll never forget the first time I met him. I was a new barman at the time, working in the local pub, and he was running as a candidate in the by-election to fill his father's seat. I'd read quite a bit about him, and had fairly high hopes, so it was interesting to see him. I know: I was young -- scarcely out of my teens -- and easily impressed. This was also going to be my first time voting too, and I was pretty sure I'd be voting for him. An odd choice, perhaps, given my normal Fine Gael leanings, but I wasn't impressed by the Fine Gael candidate at all, and Lenihan seemed to have serious ability, the kind the Dáil could surely do with.

He was surrounded by groupies, the typical tribal sorts who gather round political figures, and one of them, hastening to buy a drink -- 'For the candidate,' she said -- looked at my bemused expression and turned giggling to the others: 'He doesn't know who he is!'

Lenihan looked at me, noticed my querulous eyebrow, and grinned at me. I nodded, and finished the order. And I voted for him. It was my first time to vote to send anyone to the Dáil, and it was my first time to vote in an AV election, and my guy had got in. Joe Higgins, the other candidate to make it to the last round, got in later, and though I often disagree with him, I think he's a good man to have in the Dáil too. He asks good questions.

Despite being possible the most able TD Fianna Fáil had in their ranks -- or perhaps because of it -- Bertie kept him out of the cabinet for years, only seriously promoting him when he was on the way out himself. Once Bertie was gone he was appointed as Minister for Finance, there immediately to be handed the mess created by his predecessors and the global economic collapse. His guarantee of the Irish banks was seen by almost everyone at the time as the best possible response to the crisis of the day, though in hindsight it looks disastrous, as has his maintenance of the guarantee and the acceptance of the hugely expensive EU-IMF loans that we've all taken to calling a 'bailout'.

There seems something terribly ironic and deeply tragic in a politician of such ability and integrity, possibly the most gifted member of the last Dáil or two, having led the country into such a dire situation. I strongly suspect, though, that history shall judge him kindly, once the documents are all out in the open and we can see what really went on when the guarantee was decided, when its maintenance was agreed on, and when the bailout was accepted.

All who knew him seem to have loved him. I've no doubt he'll not be long for Purgatory.

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