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Saturday 19 January 2019

Not perfect, but all Brian was left with were bad options

When Brian Lenihan Jnr was Minister for Finance and battling cancer, he often chewed garlic in order to stop himself from falling asleep.

Perhaps it was also to keep the economic vampires at bay. In the last interview he gave before his death, he famously summed up his time in Government with the words: "It was like being at the gates of hell."

Lenihan (below) has been in his grave for barely four years. Already, however, the debate over his historical legacy has split into two camps.

Some pundits condemn him as a desperately incompetent Minister who blundered away Ireland's economic sovereignty, while others claim that he saved us from an even worse fate.

A new book of essays about Lenihan should point towards a more balanced verdict. As the captain of a ship that sailed into a financial storm, he inevitably made mistakes along the way.

At the same time, he got plenty of things right and always put his country before his party - which is why so many people still mourn his death at the young age of 52.

Brian Lenihan: In Calm and Crisis is certainly required reading for anyone who wants to understand the terrible dilemmas that he faced.

It contains many tributes from people who saw the man up close in his final years, including IMF chief Christine Lagarde, Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan and former President Mary McAleese.

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At the heart of the book lies a key question - how could Lenihan take so much money off the Irish people and yet still remain so popular?

After all, he signed the infamous banking guarantee in 2008 and negotiated a humiliating bailout from the Troika two years later.

Despite these horrific setbacks he was the only Fianna Fail TD in Dublin to retain his seat at the 2011 general election.

The answer is simple. No matter what Lenihan did, the public could see he was a decent man who struggled against almost impossible odds.

This trained barrister often had to defend some extremely dodgy clients - but even a terminal illness could not prevent him from sticking to his post until the bitter end.

The great tragedy of Lenihan's political career was that he got his big break too late. He won his father's Dublin West Dail seat in 1996, but a cool relationship with Bertie Ahern meant that he did not reach the Cabinet table until 2007.

Less than a year later, he took over the Department of Finance.

Brian Lenihan senior's catchphrase was "No problem!" Junior, however, was quick to publicly admit that he had inherited a complete mess from both Cowen and Charlie McCreevy.

One of the book's most interesting essays is by ex-finance minister Ray MacSharry, who warned McCreevy that spending was out of control - and recalls, "He just laughed at me."

To fill this black hole, Lenihan had to introduce a series of nightmare budgets that increased income tax and cut public services. Nobody enjoyed this at the time but it started to get the public finances under some sort of control.

With the economy now in recovery mode, Michael Noonan is getting all the credit - but in reality he has followed a blueprint laid out by his Fianna Fail predecessor.

Lenihan's role in the banking guarantee is hard to judge, if only because there is so much about that fateful night in Government Buildings still to be discovered.

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What we do know for certain is that the banks first led him astray by massaging their figures and then effectively put a gun to his head.

It is also fair to say that the situation was so dire by then, the Government simply had no good options left.

As for the EU/IMF bailout that Lenihan was forced to accept, that is by no means black and white either. It has since been revealed that he wanted to burn at least some senior bondholders, but was bullied out of it by ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet.

It would be extremely interesting to hear Monsieur Trichet's side of the story - that is, if he attends our Oireachtas banking inquiry next year.

Brian Lenihan was not perfect, but any balance sheet of his life should show that the positive far outweighed the negative.

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