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Sunday 17 December 2017

Andrew Lynch: Brian Lenihan steels the troops as battle lines drawn for last throw of the dice

If Brian Lenihan had chosen not to enter politics, he would probably be earning millions as a barrister instead.

Today, the Minister for Finance must defend his dodgiest client of all.

His speech this evening on how many billions will be pumped into the banking sector, combined with statements from the Financial Regulator and NAMA, makes this the most important day in Irish economic history -- so from the Government's point of view, it's just as well they have their star performer on the job.

In effect, this is the moment where we finally receive the bill for the mistakes of the Celtic Tiger years. The minister himself admits that it's the last throw of the dice in his 18-month struggle to restore confidence in the banking industry. The figures unveiled are certain to provoke anger and resentment from ordinary citizens, for the very good reason that they'll be the people who have to pick up the tab. Lenihan does, however, have one big advantage on his side.

Since he didn't enter the Cabinet until 2007, he can justifiably claim that he bears no personal responsibility for the financial mismanagement that got us into this mess.

He can't say this openly, of course, since the man in charge of the Department of Finance at the time was none other than Brian Cowen -- but it's a key reason why he's the one minister who might just about be able to pull this off.

As Lenihan himself wryly joked when he first got the job, he had the misfortune to take charge of the national economy at the exact moment it was heading over a cliff.

He had a rocky start when his first budget was derailed by a bitter row over the withdrawal of medical cards from the elderly. Since then, however, he has visibly grown in confidence, taking a series of tough decisions and using his superb communication skills to explain them to the public. When Brian Cowen came to choose his first Cabinet, he seriously considered giving the finance portfolio to either Noel Dempsey or Mary Coughlan.

The politest thing you can say about those two options is that if either had got the job, NAMA would have fallen in the Dail last year and probably the Government along with it.

Whether or not you think that's a good thing, it's a testament to Lenihan's ability that he not only won the debate but made the opposition look weak and irresponsible in the process.

The shocking news last Christmas about Lenihan's serious illness has inevitably raised question marks over his long-term political future.

Until this devastating personal blow, he had been rapidly emerging as a favourite to go one better than his father and end up as Taoiseach himself. If he was still in his full state of health, it's quite possible that the current backbench rumblings in Fianna Fail would already have developed into a full-blown leadership crisis.

For now, however, all we can say is that Lenihan's condition has had absolutely no effect on his public performance.

He appears to be as focused and controlled as ever, already talking about next December's Budget with the confidence of a man who expects to be the one delivering it. In the long term, he will probably have to clarify his intentions -- but until then, there is absolutely no public pressure for anybody else to take his place.

The short-term economic future looks bleak, but at least Lenihan knows he is no longer a slave to either the banks or the markets. With their credibility shot to pieces, he is now the one calling the shots.

When Lenihan was growing up in the garrison town of Athlone, his ambition was to become a soldier. He will never face a greater professional battle than the one he has on his hands today.

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