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Brian Lenihan

Brian Lenihan (17 November 1930 - 1 November 1995) was a senior Irish Fianna Fáil politician, Tánaiste of the Republic of Ireland (1987-1990) and a defeated candidate for the office of President of Ireland. He was a member of a famed family political dynasty; his father and sister both followed him into Dáil Éireann, with he and his sister (Mary O'Rourke) sitting in cabinet together. Two of his sons are themselves now TDs. His two catchphrases, no problem and on mature recollection, entered the Irish political lexicon.

Brian Lenihan was born in Dundalk in County Louth. After studying in University College Dublin he qualified as a barrister from King's Inns. He practised law for a few years but he soon became a full time politician.

Table of contents
1 Minister for Justice
2 Minister for Education
3 Foreign Minister, then loses Dáil seat
4 Opposition to, then implementation of, the Anglo-Irish Agreement
5 Liver Transplant
6 Presidential candidate
7 Out of Government
8 Death
9 Overview and Legacy
10 Brian Lenihan Memorial Lecture
11 Footnotes
12 Additional Reading
13 External links

Minister for Justice

Lenihan contested his first general election, unsuccessfully, in 1954 and was appointed to Seanad Éireann in 1957 by Taoiseach Eamon de Valera. In 1961 he was elected TD for the Roscommon-Leitrim consituency. In 1964 he was appointed Minister for Justice by Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Sean Lemass. He was one of the new generation of political leaders Lemass brought to the fore; others included Donagh O'Malley, Patrick Hillery, George Colley and Charles J. Haughey. At Justice he succeeded Charles Haughey, by general agreement the most reforming and successful Justice Minister in Irish history.1 With Haughey's sudden move to become Minister for Agriculture (where he replaced a resigned minister, Paddy Smith) it fell to Lenihan to finish Haughey's massive legislative programme, covering everything from repealing mediæval laws to granting succession rights to married women. As Minister it was Lenihan to scrapped Ireland's notorious censorship laws. Controversially he also suggested that the Republic of Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations, though it is unclear whether that suggestion actually reflected his opinion or whether he was simply raising the issue at Lemass's request to gauge public reaction.

Minister for Education

In 1968 Lemass's successor Jack Lynch appointed Lenihan as Minister for Education. As Education minister he controversially proposed the merger of Dublin's (then) two universities, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and University College Dublin (UCD).2 However the scheme was abandoned after mass opposition, Lenihan famously being forced to flee student protests in TCD out the window of a toilet.

Foreign Minister, then loses Dáil seat

Between 1969 and 1973 he served as Minister for Transport and Power. In 1973, following Dr. Patrick Hillery's appointment as Irish EEC Commissioner, Taoiseach Jack Lynch appointed Lenihan as Minister for Foreign Affairs for a short time. However in the 1973 general election, Lenihan's party lost power and he dramatically lost his Roscommon Dáil seat. He contested the immediately following Senate election and was elected, becoming his party's leader in the upper house. Lenihan moved his political base from rural Roscommon to Dublin, where he was elected again as a TD in the 1977 general election landslide victory by Fianna Fáil. Jack Lynch appointed him Minister for Forestry and Fisheries.

Lynch's forced retirement in 1979 saw a leadership battle between Charles Haughey (the radical republican candidate) and George Colley (the party establishment candidate). Lenihan dismissed the choice as being between a "knave and a fool". He also described himself as being the "x in Oxo"3. He was believed to have backed Colley. Years later he claimed he had actually supported Haughey, but not everyone accepted his claim to have actually backed the winner.

Haughey, the winner, kept Lenihan in the cabinet, awarding him again the high profile post of Minister for Foreign Affairs, a post he held until Fianna Fáil lost power in 1981. His period in Foreign Affairs was overshadowed by a comment made after an Anglo-Irish summit between prime ministers Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher, when he spoke of Britain and Ireland being able to bring about Irish unity within ten years, a comment which infuriated the British and Northern Ireland unionists and which undid much of the goodwill achieved by the summit. His comments, at a time of major problems with Northern Ireland, with the Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army terrorist campaigns, were widely criticised in the Irish medias as insensitive, especially as Irish unity had not even been on the agenda of the summit. One newspaper columnist commented simply "there goes Brian, pointlessly talking himself into trouble again".4 In 1982, when the party regained power for ten months, Lenihan was given the post of Minister for Agriculture.

Opposition to, then implementation of, the Anglo-Irish Agreement

In opposition Lenihan and Haughey attracted some international criticism when, against the advice of senior Irish-American politicians Senator Edward Kennedy and Speaker Tip O'Neill Haughey and Lenihan campaigned against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which the government of Garret FitzGerald had signed with the British government of Margaret Thatcher and which gave the Republic some say in the internal governance of Northern Ireland. In 1987 Fianna Fáil returned to power and Lenihan was for the third and final time appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, with the additional post of Tánaiste (deputy prime minister). In power Haughey and Lenihan reversed their opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Lenihan attending meetings of the Anglo-Irish Conference which the Republic's foreign minster and the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland co-chaired.

Liver Transplant

Lenihan's last period as Minister for Foreign Affairs was overshadowed by his serious ill-health. A long-standing liver problem present since childhood had developed into a life-threatening issue requiring a liver transplant. Lenihan, previously a large, overweight man had been reduced to a bone-thin jaundiced-looking shadow of his former self, so ill-looking that the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Tom King, said afterwards that on seeing Brian, a good friend of his, at one Anglo-Irish Conference meeting, he had speculated as to whether Lenihan would die at the meeting. In May 1989 Lenihan underwent the liver transplant in the Mayo Clinic in the United States. In his absence he was re-elected to the Dáil in the snap 1989 general election, after which, though retaining the post of Tánaiste he was moved to the physically less demanding post of Minister of Defence. Brian Lenihan returned with a new lease of life, speaking about his religious beliefs in an Irish religious magazine. When Brian entered the Dáil chamber he received an ovation, an indication of his personal cross-party popularity.

It was revealed subsequently that Brian Lenihan's operation was partly paid for through fundraising by Taoiseach Charles Haughey from senior businessmen with Fianna Fáil links. In evidence to a tribunal investigating Haughey's finances5 it was suggested that some of the money raised but not ultimately needed for the operation was redirected by Haughey into his own personal bank account.

Presidential candidate

In January 1990 Government Press Officer P.J. Mara let it be known to the Irish media that Brian Lenihan was considering seeking the Fianna Fáil nomination to become the party candidate for the Irish presidential election, which was due in November that year. Opposition parties and the media speculated that the unusually early hints were part of a plan to discourage other parties from running candidates, the belief being that Lenihan, who was regarded as Ireland's most loved politician and recovering from a life-threatening illness, would prove unbeatable and so get the office unopposed.6 However this idea was derailed when Irish Labour Party leader Dick Spring indicated also in January 1990 that not merely was Labour guaranteed to run a candidate for the presidency, he would run if no-one else was available. Untimately in April 1990 Labour chose former Senator Mary Robinson as its candidate.

Challenge of John Wilson

Lenihan was generally perceived as unbeatable for the presidency, though he did receive a late challenge for the nomination from cabinet colleague John Wilson, as fears grew among the party leadership that the party, in a minority government, would have great difficulty holding Lenihan's seat in a by-election, whereas Wilson had a 'safe seat' the party would have no difficulty in holding. In September 1990 Lenihan saw off the Wilson challenge and was formally nominated as his party's candidate. The main opposition party, Fine Gael, after a chaotic search chose new Fine Gael TD and former SDLP cabinet minister in Northern Ireland, Austin Currie, to be its candidate.

Lenihan however had one serious flaw. Though regarded by those who knew him personally as an intellectual heavyweight he had masked his ability behind an image of a lightweight, semi-comic politican, the "clown prince" of Irish politics, in the words of longtime friend, journalist John Healy. During leadership heaves against Haughey in the 1980s Lenihan had regularly appeared on RTÉ television to insist that Fianna Fáil was not divided, even as ministers were resigning from cabinet, and when Haughey supporters physically assaulted an opponent of Haughey's, ex-minister Jim Gibbons, in the environs of Leinster House, the Republic's parliament building.

That image was augmented by a disastrous Late Late Show TV special devoted to him and broadcast only weeks before the presidential campaign started, in which colleagues and friends of Lenihan projected an image of him as a political cute hoor, that is, someone who would do anything and pull any stunt that was required, including making any promises to the electorate without any intention of following them through. As a result, while his personal popularity was high, his perceived trustworthyness did not achieve the same heights.

The Lenihan tape

The issue of Lenihan's trustworthyness became the central issue of the second half of the presidential campaign, where a furore arose over his supposed involvement on Haughey's behalf in 1982 to pressurise then president, Patrick Hillery, a close friend of Lenihan's, into refusing then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald a parliamentary dissolution in January 1982. Had Hillery done so - which he didn't - FitzGerald would have had to resign, allowing Haughey to form a government. Allowing Haughey to form a government before calling a general election and giving him the freedom to choose the timing of the election would have protected Haughey from rumoured plans to depose him (one TD, Charlie McCreevy had already been expelled from the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party a short time earlier for criticising Haughey's leadership), as he would have been able to use his appointments powers to reward middle ground TDs who might otherwise have supported moves to topple him.7

Lenihan over eight years had never denied that he had been one of the people making phonecalls to Áras an Uachtaráin (the presidential palace) that night in January 1982. That he had made phone calls was mentioned in newspapers and in books by authors Stephen O'Byrnes and Raymond Smith and by many political journalists in newspaper articles, some of whom had Lenihan privately as their source. In September 1990 The Irish Times carried a series of articles on the presidency, one of whom mentioned in passing the role of Lenihan, Sylvester Barrett and Charles Haughey in making the controversial phonecalls to Áras an Uachtaráin, the Irish presidential residence, to pressurise the President.

In October 1990, in the midst of the presidential election, Lenihan changed his story and, in an interview in the Irish Press newspaper and on RTÉ's Questions and Answers political programme, insisted that he had played "no hand, act or part" in efforts to pressurise President Hillery. All his previous confirmations had been in off the record briefings to journalists who could not reveal he was the source of their stories. However on 17 May 1990 Lenihan had confirmed his participation in one on the record interview with a post-graduate student and journalist, Jim Duffy, who was researching the presidency of Ireland for a thesis and for a series of newspaper articles in The Irish Times. In the aftermath of Lenihan's TV denial, The Irish Times, which was aware that Lenihan himself was Duffy's source for the original article claim, with Duffy's agreement published a newspaper story confirming that contrary to Lenihan's TV claim, he had made the controversial phone calls to the Áras in an attempt to pressurise President Hillery. When Lenihan's campaign manager, Bertie Ahern, on radio inexplicably named Duffy as someone who had interviewed Lenihan back in May, a political storm erupted in which the journalist was put under siege by the media and Fianna Fáil, leading to the reluctant decision after consulting with lawyers to release the proportion of the tape in which Lenihan talked about the events of January 1982.

'On mature recollection'

Lenihan's immediate reaction severely damaged his credibility. He appeared on a live news bulletin and looking to camera in a manner media commentators referred to as Nixonesque pleaded with the Irish people to believe him, arguing that "on mature recollection" he had not phoned President Hillery and his account to Duffy had been wrong. He then requested an Audience with President Hillery to seek his confirmation that he made no phone calls. In the end when no audience was granted his campaign manager, Bertie Ahern, decided to withdraw the request though in a sign of the chaos envelloping the campaign, Lenihan, not knowing of this decision, told RTÉ journalist Charlie Bird that the request was still there until the journalist played back his interview with Ahern, after which Lenihan recorded a new soundbite explaining why the request had been withdrawn. (RTÉ showed the image of Lenihan listening to the RTÉ reporter's tape recorder but the fact that he was listening to Ahern's interview before re-recording his own was not explained to viewers and only became known subsequently.) It was further revealed that one of the callers (under parliamentary privilege Haughey was named as the culprit though he denied it) had threatened when he returned to power to end the career of the army officer who took the calls and who on President Hillery's explicit instruction had refused to put any of them through to the President.8 It was stated that the President as Commander-in-Chief had expressly recorded details of the threat made against the army officer in the officer's file with an instruction that his career was not to be harmed in any way by the politician.

The opposition put down a motion of no-confidence in the government. The minority party in government, the Progressive Democrats, told Haughey that unless Lenihan was either dismissed or an inquiry set up into the events of January 1982 it would resign from government, support the opposition motion and so force a general election on the issue. Though insisting that he would put no pressure on Brian Lenihan, "my friend of thirty years", in private, Haughey drew up a letter of resignation which he tried to get Lenihan to sign. Lenihan refused, and so Haughey formally instructed President Hillery to dismiss Lenihan from the cabinet, as Tánaiste and as Minister for Defence, which Hillery, as was required constitutionally, duly did.

Padraig Flynn's attack on Mary Robinson

Lenihan's dismissal led to an immediate collapse in popularity (from the mid 40% to 31% almost overnight) but then rallied. However a subsequent personal attack by former cabinet colleague, Padraig Flynn on Mary Robinson, in which he accused her of showing a "new found interest" in her family, backfired and destroyed Lenihan's campaign. Progressive Democrats president Michael McDowell verbally savaged Flynn on the radio show where the attack was made. Women voters, insensed at Flynn's attack, rallied to Robinson and abandoned the Lenihan campaign in droves. While Lenihan did win more votes in the first count, most of the votes that went to Austin Currie (who came in a humiliating third, at a mere 17%) transferred against Lenihan, going to Robinson. As a result, Mary Robinson, not the odds-on favourite at the start of the campaign, Brian Lenihan, became the 7th President of Ireland. Lenihan was the first Fianna Fáil candidate (and to date the only one) to lose an Irish presidential election.

Out of Government

Lenihan remained active in politics right up to his death five years later. Bitter at how he felt he had been betrayed by the Progressive Democrats, he campaigned for Fianna Fáil to coalese with Labour instead, something which did eventually happen after the 1992 general election. He also reviewed books in national newspapers, where he revealed the full depth of his intellectual abilities, abilities he had played down in his public persona when a minister.


Brian Lenihan's health again deteriorated and he died in 1995. In the resulting by-election, his son Brian junior was elected to his seat. In the 1997 general election another son, Conor, was elected to Dáil Éireann.

Overview and Legacy

Brian Lenihan was a complex Irish politician. Though regarded by those closest to him as one of the most intelligent people ever to sit in Leinster House (mentioned alongside Eamon de Valera, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, Professor John M. Kelly, Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien and Dr. David Thorney, all of whom are generally regarded as the major parliamentary intellectuals in modern Irish political history) Lenihan's public image was, as John Healy observed, that of being the "clown prince of politics", given to say "no problem" and "there is no question of that" continually in interviews, to the amusement of viewers and the exasperation of television presenters. Yet his achievements, particularly the abolishment of censorship and the implementation of Haughey's legislative programme in the Department of Justice, have earned him a prominent place in the history of Irish governance.

Brian Lenihan Memorial Lecture

A Brian Lenihan Memorial Lecture is delivered annually in the Irish Institute of European Affairs. The first guest speaker was the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead (formerly British Home Secretary and President of the European Commission Roy Jenkins). In 2001 the lecture was given by Chris Patten, former Conservative Party minister, governor of Hong Kong and current British European Commissioner.

See also


1 Haughey systematically reviewed, repealed or amended Acts dating back 700 years in the single largest reform of the Irish civil and criminal code ever undertaken. Though a highly controversial politician, Haughey's reforms as Justice Minister (1961-1964) remain universally praised by supporters and opponents alike.

2 Both still exist, alongside a third since created, Dublin City University, formerly the National Institute of Higher Education (NIHE).

3 Sunday Independent.

4 Oxo is a top-selling Irish brand of stock cube.

5 Though posing as a very wealthy man, and living in a former viceregal summer residence on the outskirts of Dublin, Haughey was revealed in the Moriarty Tribunal to have been bankrolled by rich businessmen, who made multi-million pound donations to him to enable him to avoid bankruptcy.

6Of the nine presidential elections held before 1990 (1938, 1945, 1952, 1959, 1966, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1983) one candidate had been elected unopposed one five occasions (1938, 1952, 1974, 1976, 1983).

7 In the event, Haughey did face another leadership heave directly after the election requested by FitzGerald and granted by President Hillery. However efforts to replace Haughey by Desmond O'Malley as the Fianna Fail nominee for taoiseach failed.

8 Fergus Finlay, a senior aide to Labour leader Dick Spring, was telephoned by an anonymous source will details of the threat. (The source, challenged as to his trustworthyness, gave Finlay personal details that convinced Finlay as to his reliability.) According to Finlay, Haughey having told the Army Officer to "put me through to the President" and, on the basis of the President's earlier instructions being refused, told the army officer that he will be taoiseach one day and "when I am, I intend to roast your fucking arse if you don't put me through immediately." Finlay, Snakes and Ladders p.91. Haughey tearfully told the Dáil he never insulting an army officer and he never would. Lenihan in his subsequent account noted that no-one ever claimed Haughey had insulted an army officer but that he had threatened him, a subtle but important difference, and that Haughey never denied threatening the army officer, merely denied ever insulting an army officer.

Additional Reading

External links