DUBLIN — Former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who oversaw Ireland’s struggle to avoid national bankruptcy and the collapse of its banks even as he battled cancer, died Friday. He was 52.
Lenihan was lauded as a man of professional commitment and personal integrity who suffered the ill fortune of becoming finance minister in mid-2008 — the moment Ireland’s celebrated Celtic Tiger boom was about to transform into one of Europe’s worst financial disasters.
“His unyielding determination to do his duty, in spite of a serious illness, was remarkable and inspirational. It was truly a profile in courage,” said longtime government and party colleague Micheal Martin.
“Brian had to confront challenges, the scale and gravity of which were unprecedented in the history of the state. Despite his illness, he faced up to those challenges with extraordinary but characteristic dignity, courage and good humor,” said Irish President Mary McAleese.
Barely four months into his new job, Lenihan faced the imminent collapse of Ireland’s biggest gambler on the runaway property market, Anglo Irish Bank, and the prospect that five other domestic banks could topple like dominoes as a result.
He responded with a blanket guarantee of domestic banks, the world’s first such move. Lenihan declared that the sweeping promise wouldn’t cost taxpayers a penny because confidence was all the Irish banks needed.
It failed spectacularly as subsequent government-ordered investigations unveiled huge property-based toxic debts in all six banks. Taxpayers found themselves on the hook for repaying tens of billions not only to fleeing depositors but also the foreign banks and hedge funds that had loaned Ireland’s banks cheap money in good times.
The crisis appeared to take a stark physical toll on the dark-haired, normally ebullient Lenihan, who became pale and drawn during 2009. He finally went to a doctor late that year complaining of insomnia and a potential hernia. They found advanced pancreatic cancer.
He vowed to stay on — and even became many Irish voters’ favorite choice to succeed Ireland’s ineffectual prime minister of the day, Brian Cowen. Lenihan considered a leadership heave but declined, saying the fight to save Ireland from bankruptcy couldn’t afford any political turmoil.
By the time Ireland’s voters threw Cowen, Lenihan and the long-ruling Fianna Fail party out of office in February 2011, the estimated cost of Ireland’s bank-rescue efforts had risen exponentially to €70 billion ($100 billion), a bill that a recession-hit country of just 4.5 million could never finance on its own.
Lenihan recalled his sense of deepening horror as Ireland, priced out of bond markets expecting eventual Irish default, found itself forced in November 2010 to negotiate a €67.5 billion line of credit from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. The funds were designed to permit Ireland to cover its deficits and fund its banks until 2013.
“I have a very vivid memory of going to Brussels …. being on my own at the airport, looking at the snow gradually thawing, and thinking to myself: This is terrible,” Lenihan recalled in a March interview with the BBC.
“I had fought for 2 1/2 years to avoid this conclusion. I believed I had fought the good fight and taken every measure possible to delay such an eventuality. And now hell was at the gates,” he said.
Lenihan’s perseverance in all-night meetings, despite regular rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, impressed IMF and EU officials.
“Brian displayed great personal courage, strength and dedication to the public good during a period of exceptional economic challenge in the life of Ireland and Europe,” said Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s minister for economic affairs. “In placing his duty to the nation above his personal difficulties, Brian Lenihan has provided us with an outstanding example of public service.”
And to the end, Lenihan remained arguably the public’s most respected figure in the discredited Fianna Fail party. While scores of his lawmaker colleagues were ousted from office in February’s election, Lenihan was re-elected to his West Dublin constituency as Fianna Fail’s sole parliamentary survivor in the capital.
He was the scion of one of Ireland’s great political dynasties. His father, Brian Sr., was a longtime lawmaker, deputy prime minister and failed presidential candidate who also died of cancer. The younger Brian first entered politics to run successfully to fill his father’s parliamentary seat in 1996.
Lenihan’s younger brother Conor and his aunt Mary O’Rourke also were Fianna Fail lawmakers. Both lost their parliament seats in the February election. Both were by his bedside Friday morning after doctors at a Dublin hospital determined that they couldn’t stop the spread of his cancer.
“In the end he went home. Where else would we want to pass away than at home?” O’Rourke said in a telephone interview.
She called his death at a comparatively young age “so incredible, so unfair. … I feel like my own life has almost ended, I really do.”
He was survived by his mother Ann, wife Patricia, four siblings and two children. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.