by Frank Schnittger
Wed Jan 6th, 2010 at 05:46:53 PM EST
Brian Lenihan has only been a cabinet Minister for two and a half years: firstly as Minister for Justice, and latterly as Minister for Finance in Brian Cowen's first - and likely only - Government. As such he does not quite share the opprobrium heaped upon his immediate predecessor (and current Taoiseach) Brian Cowen for Ireland's economic and fiscal crises. Indeed he his widely seen as having inherited the most unenviable task to have faced any Finance Minister in the history of the state.
As such he has introduced three draconian budgets within 14 months to try to reduce Ireland's soaring budget deficit largely through swingeing cuts in public expenditure - including pay reductions and increased pension contributions for Civil Servants - and also led the charge to create the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), a bad bank designed to take over the toxic loans of the banking sector for a price 7 Billion more than their estimated current market value.
Many Governments have fallen and political careers ruined for much less than this. It is remarkable that this Government has survived, Lenihan's political reputation has remained largely unscathed, and he is widely acknowledged as one of the most capable ministers in the Government.
On 26 December, 2009, TV3 reported that Lenihan had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer - a diagnosis he had only just been apprised of - and before he could inform members of his extended family. There was widespread anger at this intrusion into his private life and sympathy for the Minister himself. On 4th. January Brian Lenihan announced that he would remain in Office and fulfil his duties as Minister for Finance during his chemotherapy and possible subsequent radiotherapy.
I have argued vehemently against his Nama proposals, but shared a concern that the bitter and personalised tone of much political discourse in some other countries should not become the norm in Ireland. Hence this letter in today's Irish Times:
Brian Lenihan's illness - The Irish Times - Wed, Jan 06, 2010
Madam, - As my previous letter (July 7th, 2009) will testify, I was as opposed as anyone to Brian Lenihan's approach to bailing out the banks through over-paying for their toxic loans.
However that opposition never extended to questioning his integrity or dedication. I had to acknowledge somewhat ruefully that there wasn't much in the way of alternative talent available for his position - particularly after the abysmal failure of the Greens to stand up for their principles and oppose the Nama legislation.
His decision now to carry on in the face of a serious medical condition confirms his stature as one of the few people of real substance in Irish political life, a situation sadly emphasised also by the recent passing of Justin Keating. Let us hope Mr Lenihan makes as full a recovery as possible, as quickly as possible.
The public response to his predicament is also quite a tribute to the maturity of the Irish people. The lack of bitterness and bile directed at him personally in the wake of one of the most draconian budgets of all time is quite remarkable. The sympathy now felt towards him seems quite universal.
Fianna Fáil may have got us into an almighty mess. But it has also provided us with one of the few leaders who may be capable of leading us out of it - his mistaken approach to dealing with the banks notwithstanding! - Yours, etc,
I may not approve of Brian Lenihan's policies or politics, but I value the fact that Irish political discourse generally plays the ball rather than the man - i.e. criticises the policy rather than their proponents - and feel that the mature tone of much of the public debate so far has been a major factor in sustaining the stability of the state in what might otherwise be an incendiary situation.
Of course a revolutionary socialist might well welcome instability at this time. I'm prepared to give the current political processes some more time to succeed. I don't think Ireland can have a socialist revolution in isolation from what is happening elsewhere within the EU, and at present other EU member states are showing precious little sign of even a mild move to the left.
However I am fully aware than my views could easily be condemned as taking a very conservative position. I would be interested in seeing what take readers here would have on the situation. The parallels with (and divergence from) Iceland may be interesting and instructive to consider.