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George Lee Is The Business

Posted on: May 10th, 2009

Fianna Fail has always been noted for brass neck. Last week its attacks on George Lee took the biscuit. The whingeing had more than a whiff of desperation. Fianna Fail painted a picture of George as a Blueshirt sleeper, lurking in the RTE undergrowth, feeding out propaganda to the masses under the guise of impartial reporting.

A good try, but it will not wash. George is a winner. He is a genuine business brain, thankfully lost to RTE and hopefully about to join the political game.

He will need to learn pretty quickly. Politics can be a bit hot for newcomers.

Fianna Fail should not knock people like George on suspicion. They themselves might come under scrutiny.

No doubt Shay Brennan, the FF candidate standing in the by-election against Lee, is without blemish. His greatest asset is his late father, Seamus Brennan. Seamus was a pretty good minister, and by all accounts pretty straight too.

But Seamus played the political game to perfection. He knew a thing or two about making appointments to state boards.

Young Shay Brennan has asked us not to blame him for all the woes of Anglo Irish Bank just because he is an employee there. He is dead right. Hundreds of the bank’s decent employees were unaware of the shenanigans at the top. Shay is undoubtedly one of them.

Yet Shay was an employee at Anglo.

Enter a couple of extraordinary coincidences. Young Shay was first employed in the treasury department of Anglo in 2003 as a junior official. He worked his way up to manager level in a competitive atmosphere.

In March 2004 Shay’s father Seamus, the Minister for Transport, was dishing out the directorships for the board of Aer Lingus and guess what occurred to him? How about that nice chief executive of Anglo, Seanie Fitzpatrick? Seanie just happened to be the son’s boss, but no matter.

Seanie Fitz was delighted. He accepted. Not great judgment by Seamus, but no matter.

Meanwhile, young Shay made progress in the treasury division of Seanie’s bank on the watch of its head of treasury, Tiarnan O’Mahony.

Tiarnan was widely expected to succeed Sean in the top job at Anglo.

He didn’t. That honour went to David Drumm. Tiarnan headed off to do his own thing.

In the meantime, Seamus was dumped from the transport job by Bertie Ahern and demoted to Social and Family Affairs. Down in Social and Family Affairs there were not many state jobs in the new minister’s gift.

Happily one plum came up in 2005. Seamus sought a chairman of Ireland’s Pensions Board.

And guess what occurred to him? How about that nice Tiarnan O’Mahony? He just happened to be the son’s boss at Anglo before he left last year, but no matter.

Tiarnan was delighted. He accepted. Not great judgment by Seamus, but no matter.

Tiarnan had formed a new specialist bank lending company called ISTC. He later lost €850m in the pursuit of profit. Most of it was other people’s money, but no matter .

Tiarnan is still, miraculously, chairman of the Pensions Board despite serious criticisms of his continuation in the job after the €850m debacle at his company. Seamus stood by him. Tiarnan survived.

All this could be pretty compromising stuff for the son if we did not all know better.

Last week I asked Fianna Fail if Shay had worked under head of treasury, Tiarnan. They admitted that Tiarnan was his ultimate boss but explained that there were layers of little Anglo men between Tiarnan and Shay. Young Brennan was apparently pretty junior. In other circumstances, no doubt FF would have painted him as a financial giant in a go-go bank. Furthermore they insisted that he had gone through a thorough interview process before being employed at Anglo.

Sceptics are just as entitled to challenge the bona fides of Shay as they are to question George Lee.

George’s knockers are complaining that he kept broadcasting when eyeing a Dail seat. They are asking whether he pulled the wool over the eyes of RTE?

Hopefully, he did. What a po-faced lot they are out there in semi-state Montrose.

The word around Leinster House last week was that RTE boffins have steam coming out of their ears.

They are red-faced. Only last weekend they denied that George was leaving. He never told them.

What is RTE so sniffy about?

George apparently only made up his mind last weekend. If that is so, he had no reason to tell the top brass out at RTE about the approach any earlier. RTE would probably have seized the high moral ground and asked him to step aside, do a bit of public agonising and repent.

Several RTE stars have been approached by political parties.

My own wife, Ruth Buchanan, who presents RTE’s Playback, was asked to run for the Progressive Democrats at the last election. Should she have rushed to the director general, Cathal Goan, immediately the approach was made and confess she was in danger of eternal contamination?

Like George, she considered it. Luckily for her the project imploded. So did the PDs. Let us hope that George has better luck.

George was always a phenomenon, completely misplaced in RTE. He pushed the boat out over the years.

He committed a big RTE sin. He held opinions on the economy. Worse still, he expressed them. Even worse, he was usually right.

George never understood the RTE rules. Reporters are meant to be zombies. Any hint of being more than a robot is likely to attract disapproval.

George warned ordinary people about the dangers facing the economy. He predicted the economic crash.

How dare he? He was a servant of a semi-state. How dare he do the State a service?

George became a bit of a character. RTE does not encourage its staff to be characters.

Celebrities are fine if they are Pat Kenny, Gerry Ryan and others in entertainment or feature programmes.

But the cult of the personality is not encouraged among newsreaders, business reporters or others. They could become tainted by being biased. George was biased.

His criticism of government policy was undisguised for many years.

Fellow journalists were often critical. The purists maintained that George was not a commentator, that he was a player. Which he was. Thank God.

All commentators are players. They all try to influence people in their direction.

George Lee will be a welcome addition to the Dail. He has the expertise to bring authority to the economic debate.

We can forget all that old bull he trotted out, invoking his grandchildren (of which he has none) and wanting to “look them in the eye etc”.

Forget his grandchildren, can George do anything for us? George has something virtually nobody in the Oireachtas, except Feargal Quinn, can offer.

He has an economic pedigree and real experience at the coalface. He worked as an economist at the Central Bank. He was on the staff at Riada Stockbrokers. George actually knows how the system works from the inside.

He was an RTE star because he was a great communicator and had brains to burn.

We could do with more like him in the Dail.