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Book Review For Lenihan, it was the party, first and foremost

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

BRIAN LENIHAN, HIS LIFE AND LOYALTIES, by James Downey. New Island Books, Dublin; distributed in the U.S. by Dufour Editions, Chester Springs, PA 19425-0007, ([610] 458-5005). 251 pp.

Having been prominent in Irish political life for decades, Brian Lenihan went to his grave in November 1995 still largely an underrated and misunderstood figure.

"If Ronald Reagan was Teflon man, Brian Lenihan was Velcro man," says Jim Downey in this fine biography of the late tanaiste and foreign minister. "Everything stuck to him, fairly or otherwise, and he would suffer from this phenomenon throughout the rest of his life." He had an image problem. Not that it was a particularly bad image; indeed, he acquiesced in it.

The Fine Gael politician John Kelly referred on one occasion in the Dail to Lenihan’s "blather, bluster and reckless bluffing." On another he said, "I like Deputy Lenihan — I can’t help it." Kelly, who once said it felt good to be on the same planet as Lenihan, knew the truth about his opponent’s personal integrity and intelligence. That Lenihan "sold himself short," as one friend put it, is a central theme in Downey’s book. He cites, for example, a state official who, in a rebuke over his defense of the party line on the destruction of the Viking site Wood Quay in 1978, referred to him as "the most scholarly man in the Dail."

Lenihan, who trained for the bar, had unusually strong powers of retention and recall. And he had social skills that went beyond the usual backslapping. He forged personal friendships with foreign politicians, among them Tom King, the Tory secretary of state for Northern Ireland, that lasted. Lenihan, who had a passion for and was very well-read in European history, mixed easily with politicians like Germany’s Hans Dietrich Genscher and Giuilio Andreotti of Italy

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Brian Lenihan was born into a family of rural schoolteachers. His father, Paddy, was a civil-war era, Free State Army officer who was later a hotelier and Fianna Fail activist in Athlone. Brian Lenihan became a protégé of his father’s friend Sean Lemass, and a drinking companion of Lemass’s son-in-law Charlie Haughey. It’s the relationship with Haughey that provides the great drama of this book.

Downey, a respected member of a press corps that had always been critical of Haughey, spent time socially with Lenihan in the last years of his life. In his view, his friend was the perennial victim of the now-disgraced taoiseach. The allegations concerning Haughey’s misuse of funds intended for Lenihan’s medical expenses were made after the book’s publication in Ireland, but Downey’s narrative reflects the long-simmering bitterness of family and friends. The author sees Haughey’s dark hand everywhere. For example, he suggests that the special "Late Late Show" tribute to Lenihan in 1990 was one stage managed by the taoiseach. In the program the hoary old Lenihan myths were given a full airing, most notably the story about the garda who, when he raided a pub after hours, was offered a "pint or a transfer." In fact, it wasn’t Lenihan who said that, nor in the author’s view could anybody who really knew him imagine him saying it.

That program kicked off a presidential campaign that saw Lenihan self-destruct before it was over. Downey sets the pulse racing with his account of those extraordinary weeks leading up to Mary Robinson’s election. (Lenihan later said that Robinson made a much better president than he’d ever have been.)

Generally, Downey makes a good case on Lenihan’s behalf. His honor is intact, whereas the reputations of Haughey, Andreotti and other acquaintances still living are in tatters.

How did he allow himself, though, to become so closely identified with Haughey, who was his opposite in every way? In his personal views, Downey shows he was liberal on church-state questions, left-of-center on economics, and pragmatic on Northern Ireland. Furthermore, he’d no interest in amassing personal wealth, and genuinely despised political corruption. One answer is that Lenihan believed above all in "the party, the party, the party," and this determined his approach to every leader he served under. But Haughey was a remarkably divisive and controversial leader within Fianna Fail, and in being loyal the old-fashioned way Lenihan damaged his own career. For one thing, he couldn’t be a compromise leadership candidate. And this is what he should have been, Downey believes, in the way Jack Lynch was in 1966.

Yet this doesn’t satisfactorily resolve the issue of Lenihan’s political style. Downey isn’t inclined to go down the psychological road to look for answers. Certainly, he grants that Lenihan was essentially a shy person and we might reasonably see that the easiest way for him to succeed in Fianna Fail was to blend in, to wrap himself in the mantle of the party for good or ill. And Lenihan was an outsider in one respect, indeed for the same reason Haughey was. Early on, Downey mentions that Lenihan’s sister and fellow-minister, Mary O’Rourke, found that, as late as the 1980s, their father’s membership of the army during the civil war didn’t sit well with some older activists.

Downey’s biography is as good an introduction as any to Irish politics in the 20th century; yet if it has a weakness, it is, oddly, its failure to explain Lenihan’s choices more clearly in the context of Irish political culture. The Irish voters, encouraged by the media, prefer smart men and women who are good with statistics and the law to those who read books about history and philosophy. The author is guilty here of the media’s double-think in this area. We can see it in his dismissal at one point of Sean MacBride as anti-intellectual while failing to hold all senior politicians to the same standard. For example, Downey is one of the many media admirers of Dick Spring, arguably the most anti-intellectual leader the Labor Party ever had.

The fact is that Brian Lenihan felt he was on safer ground playing the buffoon than he would have been quoting Bismarck.

Overall, though, James Downey, has written a very readable and interesting book.

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