Brian Lenihan must have pure politics pumping in his veins. A member of one of the most powerful political dynasties in Ireland, he seemed destined to become a key player in the political scene. His namesake, Brian Lenihan Sr, was a mighty figure in Fianna Fáil, serving as Táiniste in the 1980s. He remembers the political clinics his father held during his childhood: “It wasn’t even called a clinic. You just visited Mr Lenihan at his house. There’d be traffic jams at our house on a Saturday morning as people thronged in from Roscommon where my father was a TD. A lot of them would sit around the house, so the whole house would fill up with people. They would wait in the bedrooms, on the landing, in the sitting room. There’d be lines of cars outside the house.” His grandfather also was a TD, and both his aunt, Mary O’Rourke, and his brother, Conor, hold cabinet positions.
Lenihan first entered the political scene in 1996, when he was asked to stand in the Dublin West by-election after the death of his father. He was elected on the eleventh count, and went on to become chairman of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, and in 2002, was appointed Minister of State.
There is little doubt that Brian Lenihan is an intelligent man. A Foundation Scholar of Trinity, who achieved a first class honours BA and subsequently a first class Bachelor of Law degree from Cambridge, he boasts an exceptional academic career.
But all those brains couldn’t save him from unfortunate timing. Almost as soon as he took his place in the new cabinet as Minister of Finance, the world markets and banks began to freefall. A few days into his new job, he told a conference of builders that he had the misfortune of becoming Minister for Finance just as the building boom was coming to an end. He meant it to be a joke, but the builders weren’t laughing. It was seen as a major gaffe. Ireland faced its first major downturn in over a decade. As Finance Minister, he faced the difficult task of steadying the ship. As the public lost faith in the major banks, it was clear that something needed to be done.
“We’re in the eye of the storm, and who can predict the destination of a ship in the eye of the storm?”
Lenihan’s first crisis had begun. Lenihan signed the ministerial order offering a government guarantee to the major Irish banks. The Minister was pleased with his decision, insisting that it was “the cheapest bailout” possible compared with bank rescues in other countries such as the US and UK, where “billions of taxpayers’ money are being poured into financial institutions”, although he did admit that it had attracted criticism from Europe.
This move placated the public, although critics felt that it smacked of desperation and was so lacking in detail that it appeared to have been put together on the back of an envelope. When asked whether he felt that the Irish economy could come through this crisis unscathed, Lenihan was equivocal, saying, “we’re in the eye of the storm, and who can predict the destination of the ship in the eye of the storm?”
He had barely time to catch his breath before his next big challenge the budget. His responsibility was to draw up a budget that would stabilise the economy and promote future growth, while at the same time looking out for those most vulnerable in the society. His budget, which included increases in excise duties, class sizes in schools and VAT, a 1-2% income levy on all and the withdrawal of medical cards, was not seen to meet his brief. Rather than helping to alleviate the economic downturn, it was seen to rub salt into the wounds.
In the now infamous budget which he presented last fortnight, Brian Lenihan underlined his belief that these dark days called for collective action, and that his budget provided an opportunity for us all to pull together, calling it “no less than a call to patriotic action.”
The public has not responded to this call as the Minister might have liked them to. Last week the Dáil was subjected to massive protests by both the over-seventies and the students, the like of which had not been seen since the PAYE demonstrations twenty years ago. This was not the pulling together that the Minister had in mind.
After polls suggested that 60 percent of people believe that this budget will worsen the economic crisis, Lenihan is being forced to backtrack on some of the more unpopular aspects. The medical cards were always going to be a contentious issue, but the government’s handling of the backlash turned it into a fiasco. Lenihan has received criticism for the government’s furious back-peddling on this issue. Pensioners feel that he betrayed them in his budget, and even though it has now been changed so that 95% of people will retain their cards, the fact remains that the original budget pushed vulnerable elderly people to one side.
Eamon Gilmore has described the Budget as a political humiliation for the Government, but Lenihan insists that the Government has not been damaged by the controversial budget measures.