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Brian Patrick Lenihan (17 November 1930 – 1 November 1995) was an Irishmarker politician.

Lenihan sat for many years as a Fianna Fáil representative in both houses of the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. He served numerous terms as a government minister, was appointed Tánaiste in 1987, and stood unsuccessfully for the Irish presidency in 1990.

He was a member of a family political dynasty; his father, Patrick Lenihan, and sister both followed him into Dáil Éireann, his sister Mary O'Rourke sitting in cabinet with him. Two of his sons, Brian Lenihan, Jnr and Conor Lenihan, became TDs in the 1990s. Brian Lenihan, Jnr now serves as Minister for Finance and Conor is a current Minister of State in the government of Taoiseach Brian Cowen. His two catchphrases, No problem and On mature recollection, entered the Irish political lexicon.

Brian Lenihan was born in Dundalkmarker in County Louthmarker. After studying in University College Dublinmarker he qualified as a barrister from King's Inns. He practised law for a few years before becoming a full time politician.

Minister for Justice

Lenihan contested his first general election, unsuccessfully, in 1954 and was appointed to Seanad Éireann in 1957 by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera. In 1961 he was elected TD for the Roscommon-Leitrim constituency. In 1964 he was appointed Minister for Justice by Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Seán Lemass. He was one of the new generation of political leaders Lemass brought to the fore; others included Donogh O'Malley, Patrick Hillery, George Colley and Charles Haughey. At Justice he succeeded Charles Haughey. With Haughey's transfer to become Minister for Agriculture, Lenihan carried the legislative programme, covering everything from repealing mediæval laws to granting succession rights to married women. As Minister it was Lenihan who repealed Ireland's notorious censorship laws.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 Dublinmarker (TCD) and University College Dublinmarker (UCD). However the scheme was abandoned after mass opposition, Lenihan famously being forced to flee student protests in TCD through a toilet window.

Foreign Minister and loses Dáil seat

Between 1969 and 1973 he served as Minister for Transport and Power. In 1973 following 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-Leitrim Dáil seat. He contested the immediately following Senate election and was elected, becoming his party's leader in the upper house. In 1973, Lenihan was appointed a member of the second delegation from the Oireachtas to the European Parliamentmarker.

Lenihan moved his political base from rural Roscommon to West County 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 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" He was believed to have backed Colley. Years later he claimed he had actually supported Haughey, but not everyone accepted this assertion.

Haughey, the new party leader, appointed Lenihan 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 Haughey and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when he spoke of Britain and Ireland being able to bring about Irish unity within ten years, a comment which infuriated the Britishmarker and Northern Irelandmarker unionists and which undid much of the goodwill achieved by the summit. His comments, at a time of major problems within Northern Ireland, with the Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army campaigns in full swing, were widely criticised in the Irish media 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". In 1982, when Fianna Fáil regained power for ten months, Lenihan was Minister for Agriculture, the announcement in the Dáil being greeted by a sustained round of laughter on the opposition benches.

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, they 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 an advisory role in the governance of Northern Irelandmarker. 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 minister 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 had developed into a life-threatening issue requiring a liver transplant. In May 1989 Lenihan underwent the liver transplant in the Mayo Clinic in the United Statesmarker. In his absence he was re-elected to the Dáil in the 1989 general election, after which, while remaining Tánaiste he was made Minister of Defence. Brian Lenihan returned with a new lease of life, speaking about his religious beliefs in an Irish religious magazine.

It was revealed subsequently that Brian Lenihan's operation was partly paid for through fundraising by Taoiseach Charles Haughey from businessmen with Fianna Fáil links. In evidence to the Moriarty Tribunal investigating Haughey's finances it was established that much 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 leaks to the media suggested that Lenihan was considering seeking the Fianna Fáil nomination in the Irish presidential election, which was due in November 1990. Speculation abounded that this was part of a plan to discourage other parties from running candidates in the belief that Lenihan would prove unbeatable and so get the office unopposed. However, Labour leader Dick Spring indicated that Labour was run a candidate for the presidency, even if he had to stand himself. Ultimately, Labour chose former Senator Mary Robinson as its candidate.

Challenge of John Wilson

Lenihan was generally perceived as an unbeatable candidate, though he did receive a late challenge for the nomination from cabinet colleague John Wilson. However, in September 1990 Lenihan was formally nominated as his party's candidate. The main opposition party, Fine Gael chose Austin Currie, a TD and former Northern Ireland Cabinet minister, to be its candidate.

Lenihan, however, had a serious flaw. Though regarded by those who knew him personally as an intellectual heavyweight, he presented himself as a lightweight, semi-comic politician - the "clown prince" of Irish politics, in the words of longtime friend and journalist John Healy. He was once described by Fine Gael politician John Kelly as "like a lighthouse in the Bog of Allen, brilliant but useless". During leadership campaigns against Charles Haughey in the 1980s, Lenihan had regularly appeared on television to insist that Fianna Fáil was not divided, even as ministers were resigning and fisticuffs broke out in the environs of Leinster Housemarker. Lenihan's image was dealt a further blow by a disastrous Late Late Show special devoted to him which was broadcast only weeks before the presidential campaign started. Colleagues and friends projected an image of him as a political cute hoor - someone who would do anything and pull any stunt that he had to. As a result, Lenihan was liked but mistrusted.

The Lenihan tape

The issue of Lenihan's trustworthiness became the central issue of the second half of the presidential campaign.

In January 1982, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had asked President Patrick Hillery, a former government colleague of Lenihan's, to dissolve the Dáil, a request which Hillery granted. If Hillery had refused a dissolution, Charles Haughey could have formed an alternative government and strengthened his own embattled position as leader of Fianna Fáil. Subsequently, it was reported in books by authors Stephen O'Byrnes and Raymond Smith, and by many political journalists in newspaper articles (some of whom had Lenihan as their source) that Lenihan had been one of the people who had made phone calls to Áras an Uachtaráinmarker, the President's official residence, on the night in question, in order to persuade or pressurise Hillery to refuse a dissolution. Lenihan himself never denied his involvement in the incident. Indeed, in May 1990 he confirmed his participation in an on the record interview with a postgraduate student and journalist, Jim Duffy. In September 1990, The Irish Times carried a series of articles on the presidency, one of which mentioned in passing the role of Lenihan, Sylvester Barret and Charles Haughey in making the calls. The article in question was sourced from Duffy's interview.

In October 1990, in the midst of the presidential election, Lenihan suddenly changed his story. In an interview in the Irish Press and on RTÉmarker's Questions and Answers programme, he insisted that he had had "no hand, act or part" in efforts to pressurise President Hillery. The Irish Times, which was aware that Lenihan himself was Duffy's source for the original article claim, published, with Duffy's agreement, a newspaper story confirming that Lenihan had indeed made the controversial phone calls to the Áras. When Lenihan's campaign manager, Bertie Ahern, named Duffy on radio 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 his reluctant decision, after consulting with lawyers, to release the portion of the tape in which Lenihan talked about the events of January 1982.

"On mature recollection"

Lenihan's reaction severely damaged his credibility. He appeared on a live TV news bulletin, and, looking into the camera in a manner later described as "Nixonesque", pleaded with the Irish people to believe him, stating 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. No audience was granted, and his campaign manager Bertie Ahern withdrew the request - though, in a sign of the chaos enveloping the campaign, Lenihan told 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.

At this point, the opposition put down a motion of no confidence in the government. The Progressive Democrats, Fianna Fáil's coalition partner, told Charles Haughey that unless Lenihan was either dismissed or an inquiry set up into the events of January 1982 it would pull out of government, support the opposition motion and force a general election. Though insisting that he would put no pressure on Brian Lenihan, "my friend of thirty years", Haughey drew up a letter of resignation for Lenihan's signature. Lenihan refused to sign, and Haughey formally advised President Hillery to dismiss Lenihan from the government - which Hillery, as was required constitutionally, duly did, despite grave personal concerns. Many in Fianna Fáil were disgusted with what they saw as Haughey's betrayal of his old friend, and argued that the Progressive Democrats' threat to bring down the government was a mere bluff.

Pádraig Flynn's attack on Mary Robinson

Lenihan's dismissal led to an immediate collapse in his popularity (from the mid 40% to 31% almost overnight), though his standing in the polls subsequently improved. However, a personal attack by former cabinet colleague Pádraig Flynn on Mary Robinson - in which he accused her of showing a "new-found interest" in her family - backfired and destroyed Lenihan's campaign. Women voters rallied to Robinson and abandoned the Lenihan campaign in droves.

The result

In spite of his troubled campaign, Lenihan won the largest number of first-preference votes. However, most of the votes that initially went to Austin Currie, the third-placed candidate, transferred to Mary Robinson on the second count. As a result, Robinson became the 7th President of Ireland. Lenihan was the first, and so far the only, Fianna Fáil candidate to lose an Irish presidential election.

Out of government

Lenihan remained active in politics right up to his death in 1995. Bitter at what he saw as his betrayal by the Progressive Democrats, he campaigned for Fianna Fáil to coalesce with the Labour Party instead, something which happened after the 1992 general election. He also occasionally reviewed books, which showed an intellect that he had suppressed in his public persona as a politician.


Brian Lenihan's health again deteriorated and he died in 1995 at the age of 64. In the resulting by-election, his son Brian Lenihan, Jnr was elected to his seat.

In the 1997 general election another son, Conor Lenihan, was elected to Dáil Éireann.

Overview and legacy

Brian Lenihan was a complex Irish politician. He is regarded as one of the most intelligent politicians to have sat in Leinster House, mentioned alongside Éamon de Valera, Garret FitzGerald and John Kelly,as one of 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. Nonetheless his forward-looking legislative programme, including his abolition of the repressive censorship laws, have earned him a noted 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.


  • On emigration; "We can't all live on a small island."


  1. He served as a Senator on two occasions (1957–1961 and 1973–1977).
  2. He was Minister for Justice (1964–1968), Minister for Education (1968–1969), Minister for Transport and Power (1969–1973), Minister for Foreign Affairs (1973, 1979–1981, 1987–1989), Minister for Forestry and Fisheries (1977–1979), Minister for Agriculture (1982) and Minister for Defence (1989–1990).
  3. 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 made many reforms as Justice Minister (1961–1964).
  4. Both still exist, alongside a third since created, Dublin City University, formerly the National Institute for Higher Education, Dublin (NIHE, Dublin).
  5. Oxo is a well known brand of stock cube.
  6. Sunday Independent.
  7. Lenihan, previously a large framed 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 at an Anglo-Irish Conference meeting, he had speculated as to whether Lenihan would die at the meeting.
  8. When Brian entered the Dáil chamber he received an ovation, an indication of his personal cross-party popularity.
  10. 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 finance a lifestyle considerably in excess of his earnings as a politician.
  12. 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.
  13. Under the Constitution of Ireland, the President has the absolute right in consultation with the Taoiseach to grant or withhold a dissolution of the Dáil.
  14. 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.

Additional Reading

  • Bruce Arnold, Jack Lynch, Hero in Crisis (Merlin, 2001) ISBN 1-903582-06-7
  • James Downey, Lenihan: His Life and Loyalties (New Island Books 1998) ISBN 1-874597-97-9
  • Fergus Finlay, Snakes and Ladders (New Island Books, 1998) 1874597766
  • Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh, The Boss: Charles J. Haughey in Government (Poolbeg, 1983) ISBN 0-905169-69-7
  • Brian Lenihan, For the Record (Blackwater Press, ISBN 0-86121-362-9
  • T. Ryle Dwyer, Nice Fellow: A Biography of Jack Lynch (Mercier, 2001) ISBN 1-85635-368-0
  • T. Ryle Dwyer, Short Fellow: A Biography of Charles J. Haughey (Mercier, 1995) ISBN 1-86023-100-4
  • T. Ryle Dwyer, Fallen Idol: Haughey's Controversial Career (Mercier 1997) ISBN 1-85635-202-1
  • Raymond Smith, Haughey and O'Malley: The Quest for Power (Aherlow, 1986) ISBN 1-870138-00-7
  • Dick Walsh, Inside Fianna Fáil (Gill & Macmillan, 1986) ISBN 0-7171-1446-5

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