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Taoiseach in all but name

Posted on: January 10th, 2010

BRIAN Lenihan was born to be Taoiseach. No, nothing to do with his pedigree. Lineage once gave you a leg up in Irish politics, but no more.

Of course, the finance minister is blessed with tribal bonds unequalled in Fianna Fail. Of course, his father Brian senior and grandfather Paddy were party icons. Of course, his aunt Mary O’Rourke is a priceless ally in Leinster House. And of course, his brother, Conor, is a minister of state.

Young Brian inherited a political birthright. His path to the Dail’s backbenches was a doddle.

After that, he was dependent on his wits; wits which soon revealed him as the brightest Lenihan ever to pass through the Kildare Street gates.

Before the age of 50, he was thrust into the hottest seat in Ireland.

Brian Lenihan has been acting-Taoiseach for over a year. He has not been leader of Fianna Fail, but he has been Taoiseach de facto, if not de iure. He has carried the lesser title of finance minister, but the reality has been obvious: Lenihan has called the shots in Cabinet.

Brian Cowen, damaged goods because of his catastrophic record in Finance, has wisely deferred to Lenihan in the economic battlefield. Cowen has led Fianna Fail while Lenihan has been digging the country out of his boss’s creation — the economic quagmire.

Tribal credentials alone would never earn a minister, even a Fianna Fail minister, such deference as has been paid to Lenihan. Genuine sympathy for his current illness has certainly prompted a spontaneous outpouring of affection for a man devoid of malice.

But emotion apart, Lenihan has provided welcome evidence that naked ability can still rise to the top of the greasy political pole. Last week one senior minister told me: “Brian is almost unchallenged in Cabinet. He might be asked serious questions on detail, but few will cross swords with him. He simply knows too much about his brief.”

No minister has ever been seen as so indispensable. If Bertie Ahern had resigned when finance minister, the markets might have rejoiced — but few others would have noticed. If Brian Cowen had been moved from the same post, there would not have been a murmur in global dealing rooms — although there could have been uproar in Fianna Fail.

But if Lenihan had stepped down last week, there would have been warnings of woe in the Financial Times and jitters among bond dealers. It is far from fanciful to suggest that a Lenihan resignation would have prompted a wobble in Ireland’s credit rating.

Thank God he didn’t do it.

Until he was cursed with cancer, Lenihan had been lucky. He had escaped the taint of association with the Celtic Tiger madness. Bertie Ahern, threatened by Lenihan’s intellect and ability, had consistently refused to promote him in the glory years. Until 2007, Lenihan was confined to ministries of state or the chair of silly committees by Ahern.

His humiliation was a blessing. He only held a full cabinet position — the Justice brief — for a year before Cowen became Taoiseach. His new leader promptly dumped the toxic portfolio of Finance in his lap.

Thus Lenihan inherited Cowen’s dark legacy.

It has been difficult for Lenihan to flip-flop on nearly all Cowen’s follies without tacitly putting the knife into his predecessor; but he has managed to do exactly that.

He is, by now, a master of Fianna Fail somersaults. While he has pillaged McCreevy’s provident national pension fund and tackled Ahern’s beloved trade unions, he has done a 180-degree U-turn on nearly all of Cowen’s policies.

Yet the rapid U-turn is his greatest achievement to date. He has pioneered measures that destroyed the power of the social partners. The message of his December Budget was clear: either the trade unions ruled or the Government did. It was pay cuts or chaos.

Cowen wanted to play the social partnership game. Lenihan knew that neither the markets nor ordinary Irish people would tolerate yet another fudge dictated by public service unions. Lenihan, not Cowen, conquered.

Cowen will be tolerated as leader of Fianna Fail for the foreseeable future. Lenihan will decide who runs Ireland. And hopefully it will be him. If Cowen, the failure in Finance, challenged Lenihan on key economic issues, he would be laughed to scorn.

It is Lenihan’s intellect, not his political acumen, that has earned him such plaudits.

Lenihan is almost unique in Fianna Fail: he places the merit of argument ahead of political pragmatism.

He is one of the few politicians in Leinster House willing to take the debate outside the chamber. He is notorious for stopping puzzled opposition politicians in the corridors to ask their opinions. He passionately wants to convince those who cross him in debate of the error of their ways. Other ministers simply count the numbers in the Dail and leave it at that.

Such confident conviction has served Lenihan and Ireland particularly well overseas. His presentations to foreign investors have bolstered the NTMA’s efforts to raise billions to keep the nation afloat. His December Budget gave heart to global bond markets; in the eyes of the vultures circling in search of national carcases, he has managed to decouple us from Europe’s most rotten corpse — Greece. Dealers are drawing a clear distinction between the two errant nations. The gap between Greek and Irish borrowing costs is widening, specifically because Ireland’s finance minister is seen as serious.

If Lenihan were to step aside, the prospect of Cowen taking over the portfolio — even temporarily — is too terrifying to contemplate. And none of the other pretenders to the throne would light a candle to him.

Today Lenihan needs luck. Luck with his health and luck with his policies. He has bet the nation on Nama. Those of us who disagree with him on this massive gamble never doubted his commitment to the project. As an opponent of Nama, it is only fair for me to concede that he won the argument in both houses of the Oireachtas. His performance on the Nama Bill in the Seanad was one of the most dazzling displays of parliamentary competence ever exhibited by a minister in that chamber. We, his opponents, were left flat-footed.

He has made many mistakes on the banks, principally allowing them to retrench right under his nose, permitting the insiders to regain power. After proving a genius at removing the old guard, he heeded the advice of the mandarins when approving clones as replacements for the departing oligarchs.

On a personal note, he was recently a more than willing help to me when I was writing The Bankers. Not that he was indiscreet, but he was generous in giving me — as an Oireachtas colleague — plenty of his time to talk to ensure that the book was accurate.

Indeed, time to talk is a rare gift in politics. Brian Lenihan has it in abundance. I have rarely met him without being interrupted by flustered mandarins, reminding the minister that he should be somewhere more important.

He will always smile, raise those dark eyes to heaven, give the mandarins a cheerful wave of the hand and continue the conversation. Self- importance is not part of his make-up.

The Lenihan balance sheet is heavily in credit. God speed for a rapid recovery.