Brian Lenihan Biography — In Calm and Crisis

This Brian Lenihan biography is more a series of reflections and memories than a biography in the true sense of that word. Whatever you thought of Brian Lenihan’s decisions and actions as Ireland’s Finance Minister at the outset of the Great Financial Crisis, his character and dignity won him widespread respect.

For the most part that admiration is reflected in this collection of essays. The essayists are Lenihan’s former colleagues, family and friends who recall the personal, political and professional aspects of his life and career, particularly his final years.

Brian Lenihan was appointed Finance Minister at a time of unprecedented difficulty for the Irish economy. He faced extraordinary pressures compounded by personal difficulties when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Many questions remain unanswered about the circumstances surrounding Ireland’s bank guarantee and subsequent bailout programme and although the recollections contained in this Brian Lenihan biography provide insights into those events  by some key players close to the Minister and the corridors of power at the time, essentially, this is a collection of personal tributes.

Contributors to this Brian Lenihan biography

The essays in this Brian Lenihan biography include brief contributions by Jim Flaherty, Former Canadian Finance Minister and Christine Lagarde, former French Finance Minister alongside pieces by names now familiar from the crisis such as Alan Ahearne and Patrick Honahan.

The recollections include the intensely personal (Mary O’Rourke, Paul Gallagher) to the more circumstantial (Eamon Ryan). Perhaps the most interesting contribution is “The Poisoned Chalice” essay by the former Irish Finance Minister, Ray McSharry who argues that Lenihan and Cowen, through the bank guarantee, saved the euro but failed to utilise the leverage that gave them — a failing he also attributes to the current Government.

“Incidentally, I should add that the current Government is also under-estimating the leverage that our membership of the EU still gives Ireland. I think Ireland should be taking a tougher stance to bring about a write-off on our bank debts. We should not forget that the European Council requires unanimity to effect change in major policy areas. I think that some night that our vote is required we should insist that the price of our vote is a deal on our banking debts.”

Other contributors include Brian Murphy, Cathy Herbert, John Mullen, Martin Mansergh, Marie Louise O’Donnell, Harmon Murtagh, John Trethowan and Jillian Van Turnhout. The introduction is by Noel Whelan.

Striking a balance for the greater good

The Appendices in this Brian Lenihan biography include Dáil tributes following Lenihan’s death. Also included is the text of Lenihan’s Michael Collins Commemorative Lecture at Beal na Bláth on 22 August 2010.

Brian Lenihan Biography
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In that speech, Lenihan said “the job of Government is to strike a balance between the legitimate interests of individual groups and the greater good.” Arguably, that’s precisely where government appears to get things generally wrong by having too much regard for the great and the good, too little for the greater good.

Brian Lenihan In Calm and Crisis is edited by Brian Murphy, Mary O’Rourke and Noel Whelan and published by the Irish Academic Press, 2014. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Irish Cancer Society.

Just Mary : a memoir by Mary O’Rourke

I found this Mary O’Rourke autobiography an entertaining read. O’Rourke is one of the best known Fianna Fail politicians of the last thirty years or so. A woman renowned for her frankness, she opted not to run for the Irish presidency because she would have felt “too corralled and hemmed in” by not being able to speak her mind.
O’Rourke’s memoir, Just Mary is conversational fast and readable romp through a career in Irish politics which saw her serve in a number of Government departments including stints in Education, Health and Public Enterprise.
O’Rourke trained as a teacher before embarking on her political career. Charles Haughey — whose reputation she believes “will be burnished to a degree which  is difficult to envisage now”– gave her a major break when he appointed her Minister for Education in 1987: “To this day, the things which interests me most in the media and in current affairs are matters of educational interest.
It is striking that O’Rourke sustained a thirty-year career in politics at a time when so few women have succeeded in making a career in Irish public life.

Insights

Her insights into her political peers — Haughey, MacSharry, Spring, Reynolds, McCreevy, Cowan, Ahern — are interesting in that they are personal even if they provide little information that is not already well known.
It’s also interesting to read what she has to say about some of the Fianna Fail policies that are now seen as having contributed to Ireland’s economic downturn. Benchmarking, for example, she says  “quickly became an obsessive and ridiculous giant beyond our control” (Chapter 16) and later, in Chapter 22 she comments: “If I were to pick out one other key area of governmental transgression of the years preceding the downturn, it would be the policy of decentralisation.”
Alongside the p0litics, Just Mary is frank and open about O’Rourke’s personal life. She discusses  her love for her late husband Enda, the difficulties she had in her twenties  in conceiving and, later, her sadness at the loss of her brothers and her nephew, Brian Lenihan. O’Rourke comes across as a warm, straight talking, family-oriented woman in a memoir that is a fast and enjoyable read.
Just Mary: a memoir by Mary O’Rourke is published by  Gill & Macmillan.  ISBN-10: 0717154092. ISBN-13: 978-0717154098