Thursday 24 January 2019

A fine mind, boundless courage and a desire to serve the nation

People always say positive things about well-known politicians when they die. What's important about Brian Lenihan is the fact that most people -- even his political and policy opponents -- always said positive things about him when he was alive.

That's because he managed to be clever, without being patronising. On radio or television, he seemed to operate from the belief that if he tried hard enough, he could explain his position so that everybody in the world would believe him.

He never got pompous or vengeful, and that was best shown when the story of his terminal illness was revealed before he would have wanted it made public.

Readers of newspapers knew him as the man in the cartoons with the panda eyes. Radio listeners knew him as the slightly breathless Minister who'd been simultaneously handed the worst economic problems in Irish history, and a deadly diagnosis. Television viewers knew him as the figure always courteously responsive to a proffered microphone at the steps leading up to his department. Political anoraks knew him as the successor to his father and as a member of the kind of political dynasty Fianna Fail used to produce, back then.

It was that membership of a dynasty which came to mind in advance of meeting him for the first time. I was running a course for people who wanted to break into television. When it came to the participants undertaking a half-hour profile interview, I briefed them and then gave them their orders.

"Find someone famous," I said. "And I mean really famous. And ask them to be interviewed by you."

One of the trainees, a lawyer, said she'd like to interview Brian Lenihan. Around the table, the expressions were at best sceptical. He wasn't, at that time, the Minister for Finance, but he was a Minister, and Ministers don't tend to give their time to a student on a training programme when they know the interview is never going to be broadcast.


"We were in the same class in the King's Inns," she said, in response to the doubtful expressions.

"Well, it's worth a try, I suppose," someone said.

She went off, made a phone call, and came back five minutes later. Brian Lenihan had said yes, no problem. A couple of days later, looking exhausted, he turned up on time and gave her an interview so astonishing in its unguarded honesty that if it had been of the right technical quality, RTE and TV3 would have fought each other for the right to broadcast it.

Afterwards, he talked with all of the participants on the course about the relationship between politics and broadcasting. They adored him. But even on the steps of the building, he wanted to know, from me, if the interview had been helpful.

Couldn't have been more helpful, I said, and full of fascinating throwaways about him, as a teenager, accompanying his father on the latter's public engagements, in order to make sure alcohol did not play too big a part in each night's tasks.

He was warm, funny and philosophical about political setbacks. Which made it even sadder, in recent months, when he gave lengthy interviews clearly informed by the imminence of his own death and his desire to put on record why he had taken the actions he had taken as Minister for Finance.

History may take a harsh view of some of those actions. But it will also register that he had a fine mind, unceasing courtesy, boundless courage -- and a constant desire to be of service to the nation.

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