Last Thursday morning, rumours of panic among a key group of mandarins spread in Leinster House. At 8.15am all the Sir Humphreys at the Department of Finance had arrived at work early. They were sitting comfortably, waiting for the new boss to arrive. Suddenly they were afflicted by outbreaks of apoplexy.
The new minister, Brian Lenihan, had gone walkabout.
Only 12 hours earlier the Merrion Street mandarins had been licking their lips. Taoiseach Brian Cowen had delivered them a novice with no experience of Finance; a civil servant’s delight, a greenhorn who would take months to learn the ropes. He could surface in public later, when tutored in their orthodoxy. A child was about to be entrusted to their gentle care.
Then on Thursday morning they were taken aback to hear their new charge being flagged on RTE’s Morning Ireland. Probably tidying up a few loose ends from his time in justice. Brian Lenihan was interviewed sitting in the car on the way to his new department. He had not yet passed through the doors of the building for the first time. But without as much as a word from the “permanent government” he was more than happy to discuss the nation’s finances.
Worse still for the civil servants, he already seemed to be on top of his brief. Typical Brian Lenihan. No politician in Leinster House has as much self confidence as the new Finance Minister. It would never have occurred to Lenihan to wait a while before giving his first interview. While other, simpler ministerial souls had gone to ground, pleading that they were “reading themselves into their brief”, Brian Lenihan was laying down the law about the economy, even before he had enjoyed his first breakfast in Finance.
Lenihan’s self-confidence is justified. His academic record is probably without parallel in Leinster House. A serial scholarship winner, educated at Belvedere, TCD and Cambridge, a barrister and a lecturer in law, Brian has brain power. The mandarins will hate that. He will not need much briefing. Not only was Brian able to argue the toss on finance on the airwaves, he was already pronouncing government policy; three times he used the ominous word “discipline”; he insisted that he would not be making any further changes in stamp duty; that current expenditure was in his sights. His fellow ministers must have shuddered as they saw their budgets under threat.
Lenihan not only has brains to burn. He has pedigree. He is both mentally and politically fit for the Finance portfolio. He is an egghead by accident and a politician by blood. The Lenihans are a formidable political family. Brian’s grandfather, Paddy Lenihan, was a TD. His talented aunt, Mary O’Rourke, and his equally able brother Conor have both held high political office; but comparisons with his father, Brian Snr, a giant in Fianna Fail folklore, are inevitable.
A sketch of Brian Lenihan Snr hangs in the Leinster House corridors. Such recognition is normally reserved for taoisigh, but it is a measure of the affection in which he is still held that no one ever raised a partisan murmur of dissent. His father’s popularity gave young Brian a good start in political life. Yet Brian Lenihan’s father never did the Finance gig. He was tanaiste, partly because he was — deservedly — much loved in the party. He held numerous cabinet posts. But Brian Senior, although an intellectual powerhouse himself, tended to hide his light under the nearest bushel. Brian Junior does the opposite. He shines it, blindingly, into your eyes.
Lesser political mortals do not like being dazzled. Brian’s brazen intellect could prove his Achilles’ heel. His agile mind has not always made him flavour of the month in the parliamentary party. Some FF colleagues think that he talks down to them. He does not suffer fools gladly. Nor is he eager to mix with them. Political observers, stunned at Bertie Ahern’s reluctance to promote him earlier, insist that Brian’s patent ability was too openly worn on his sleeve for Bertie’s liking. He lacks his father’s political modesty. His intellect could one day propel him into the ranks of the immortals in the FF pantheon of ministers for Finance, but could simultaneously hold him back from his ultimate target: the Office of Taoiseach.
And make no mistake, that is where he is heading. With one further caveat: he could be too old. Astonishingly, he is older than Brian Cowen. The Taoiseach is only 48 to Lenihan’s 49 — in 10 days’ time. His relative youth is trumped by another contender, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, six years his junior. Mary Hanafin is only 48. Micheal Martin is even younger. The middle-aged space is crowded with competitors. And it is hardly a good start to be older than the man you wish to succeed.
Indeed it is difficult for any Minister for Finance who takes the hard decisions to become Taoiseach. Charlie McCreevy never harboured such ambitions, freeing him from fear of internal political pressure. Ray Mac Sharry took positive pleasure in saying “no” to the unrealistic special pleading of his backbenchers. Such indifference to political advancement guaranteed both men places in history, but virtually excluded them from the top job.
No one illustrates the political folly of sound financial policies more than Brian Cowen. His successful ascension to the Taoiseach’s post was not due to his balancing the books. Quite the opposite. He ducked the problems. He allowed the economy to drift, failing to take measures to anticipate the downturn. In the process he offended no backbenchers, but he bequeathed Lenihan a bed of nails.
Yet Lenihan is well-equipped to challenge the vested interests he is sure to meet, particularly in the public service. On Friday, a close colleague of his told me that the new minister was a McCreevyite — a PD manqué, not a social democrat like Bertie. Today’s Ireland cries out for a wake-up call in fiscal discipline. The last thing we need is a bellyful of social democracy.
Initial noises from the minister are promising. Lenihan hardly bothered to pull punches in his RTE interview on Thursday. “Discipline in the management of our public finances” is thinly disguised code for the need for wage restraint and improved public service performance. “Clear opportunities for Ireland to grow and progress in the future” is shorthand for no cuts in capital expenditure. He refused to contemplate stamp duty changes: “I am not going to raise expectations in that department this morning or respond to some kind of stimulated clamour about it.” He ruled out a property tax.
Fighting words on Day One. This guy sounds like his own man. Or is he? On Friday, some of his Dail colleagues were muttering that Cowen was the boss; that Lenihan will be the front man, taking the flak for doing his master’s bidding.
I doubt it. Brian Lenihan has the brain and the bottle. More importantly, any man who disturbs the mandarins at their breakfast is worth a welcome.