Death of Former Minister: Expressions of Sympathy

I indicated yesterday that we would pay a brief tribute to the late Brian Lenihan today. I suggest that each party or group leader be given a maximum of five minutes in which to speak.

I was deeply saddened to learn last Friday that Deputy Brian Lenihan had died. He was a man of great intellect and integrity. He was totally committed to public service. He bore his illness with courage and fortitude. Those of us who heard him speak of his challenge on various occasions were struck by his tenacity and continuing to fulfil his public duties while holding the most difficult ministerial portfolio at the most difficult time in the country's economic history. The widespread and heartfelt tributes that have been paid to Brian in recent days demonstrate the high regard in which he was held across the political system, the country at large and overseas. Although he was a first-rate academic and brimming with ideas, he always made time to listen to the ideas of others. He was full of charisma, witty and engaging. Even at the darkest hours, he was always good-humoured.

As Minister of State with responsibility for children, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and, ultimately, Minister for Finance, Brian regularly made time to address and debate with the Seanad. On such occasions, he demonstrated his great grasp of policy and shared his ideas and vision on each brief he held. He was always respectful of the ideas and vision expressed by Members of this House. Brian's passing is all the more upsetting because of his young age. The untimely death of such a young, talented and committed public servant is very distressing for all of us who worked with him. Of course, at this time we must remember those closest to him. I extend my condolences to his wife, Patricia, his children, Tom and Clare, and all his family and friends. I also express my sincere sympathies to Brian's aunt, Mary O'Rourke, who is a former Leader of this House. I know she is deeply saddened by his untimely death. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

We had an opportunity to say a few words yesterday. I hope Members will understand if there is some repetition today. I thank the Leader for his kind words and the Government for the assistance it gave to Brian Lenihan's family. I refer to the preparations for the funeral and the opening of books of condolence, for example. My wife's family comes from Dublin West. When I went to Laurel Lodge on Saturday, I was taken with the depth of feeling in the area. Some 9,000 people, many of whom are not of any political persuasion or of all, queued for hours to sign the books of condolence. One could feel how upset people were, particularly in Dublin West, having lost a friend. Brian was a friend, first and foremost, to all of us. He took an absolute interest in those of us who started out in politics in 2004. I was what was termed a "lowly councillor" at that stage.

Brian had a deep knowledge of every constituency and every facet of life. He was always there to help and to assist. His death is a tragic loss for us in Fianna Fáil and for all parliamentarians. We have lost a friend and a genuinely great politician. In some instances, there is a tendency to overstate what people were about and what others felt about them. The one measure of Brian is that people said good words about him when he was here as well. He always showed incredible courtesy and respect in his dealings and engagement with people. He never rushed. He gave time to everyone.

Brian had immense respect for this House. It is appropriate that, later this evening, we will discuss the first part of the reform of the Seanad. Many of my colleagues will be aware that, as Minister for Finance, Brian spent hours in this House, particularly on the night of the bank guarantee. He respected this House and the mandate everyone held. At the funeral Mass yesterday, we saw the hundreds of people who had travelled to that beautiful church out in west Dublin. The heartfelt tributes paid to him over recent days really have hit a public mood in relation to him.

When he was diagnosed with his illness, Brian had the ability when all of us were working to make one forget that he was battling such a battle because he kept working in the interests of the country. Every decision he took and every initiative he brought about, from when he was Minister of State with responsibility for children, through the justice portfolio, finance and, indeed, when he was Chairman of the all-party committee on the Constitution, was in the interests of the country. He was what one would term a true patriot. He was someone who put his country first in everything he did.

On behalf of our side of the House, I formally express sympathy to Brian's wife, Patricia, his children, Tom and Clare, his mother Ann, his brothers and sisters, especially Conor, a former colleague of ours, and Mary O'Rourke, a former Leader of the House, who are deeply upset at this time. I hope the thousands of people who turned out for Brian and who signed the books of condolence, and the messages, cards and letters that have been sent from all over the world will be of some consolation and comfort to them at this difficult time.

The second reading at the Mass yesterday was from the second letter of St. Paul to St. Timothy, which, I believe, from talking to people, was one that Brian selected himself. It finishes: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." That is really what Brian encapsulated to me. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

I am glad also to have the opportunity to join in the tributes to the late Deputy Brian Lenihan, on behalf of the Labour Party and on my own behalf because I knew him personally. He will be sorely missed in a number of capacities. We focus here, I suppose, on his life as a politician, but he had a very successful and eminent career otherwise, and that should not be forgotten. He was a former law student at Trinity. He was very bright and an active participant in college life. He left Trinity and went into practice at the Bar, where he rose swiftly to become a senior counsel. He was a highly regarded senior counsel at the Bar and a huge number of his legal colleagues - I saw them yesterday at the funeral - came out to pay tribute to him as well.

Brian also had a strong and excellent academic career, taught at Trinity on a range of different subjects and was very highly regarded. When I first joined the law school, he was a part-time lecturer because he was very busy at the Bar, but he was also active in political life. There was a famous notice that went up in the law school on the event of his election to the Dáil in the by-election in Dublin West, which stated, "Brian Lenihan will be unable to give his evidence lecture today as he is taking up his seat in the Dáil", which I think the students appreciated.

On his career as a politician, as Senators Cummins and O'Brien detailed already, Brian was an excellent choice as Chair of the joint committee on the Constitution. He brought all his legal strength and intellectual rigour to that. He was also a very strong and very successful Minister of State with responsibility for children. That, as his first ministerial appointment, must be emphasised because a range of people at the funeral yesterday had known him in that capacity, had worked on children's rights in non-governmental organisations and had very good things to say about him. He brought enormous dynamism and energy and a commitment to reform to that role and to the role of Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform which he held for a short time before he was made Minister for Finance.

We all were impressed at the speed with which Brian mastered the finance brief, his immense competence and the courtesy with which he dealt with that brief. Others have spoken about the long nights in this House, the long debates he oversaw and the way in which he engaged with Opposition and Government alike. With those of us who disagreed with him, he would engage intensively and was always happy to continue debate, argument and discussion outside the Chamber. That level of engagement, with detailed mastery of his brief, are qualities that will be sorely missed in politics.

I offer my sympathy and the sympathy of the Labour group in the Seanad to Brian's wife, Patricia, a Circuit Court judge, to his children, Tom and Clare, and, of course, to his extended family, among them the former Leader of this House, Mary O'Rourke. This was a man who bore his illness so bravely and apparently so lightly, and it was such a terrible illness. The level of regard for him is shown in the immense number of tributes that have been paid.

On behalf of the Independent group, I, too, pass on my deepest sympathy to the late Deputy Brian Lenihan's family, to his wife, Patricia, to his children, Tom and Clare, and to all his friends and colleagues.

I want to focus on Brian's work as Minister of State with responsibility for children from 2002 to 2007, because that is where I knew him best. He was a true children's champion. He was the first to secure a seat at Cabinet for the children's portfolio as a so-called super-junior Minister, but he really transformed that role. We have seen the progression even more so lately. During his five years in the post, he was responsible for the creation of the Office of the Minister for Children and he appointed the first Ombudsman for Children. He engaged rigorously and seriously with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child's process on monitoring Ireland's performance. He also reformed areas such as youth justice and early years education.

Significantly, I remember Brian's national play policy which saw the creation of a significant number of playgrounds throughout the country. Often, as politicians, to promote playgrounds does not always seem popular and I think he had to refer to the youth justice and early intervention programme, or something similar, when he was talking to the Department of Finance about playgrounds, but they are so important to childhood and he led that sphere. One will see those playgrounds throughout the country.

Brian also introduced the universal preschool year, which he defended as Minister for Finance. It is an important initiative that I hope will grow. He also introduced and commenced the national longitudinal study, from which I hope we will reap the rewards of learning of what works for children and what does not. These seeds have been planted and these trees will bear fruit. We will see in years to come what he did.

Most of all, I remember Brian's work on the Constitution, both as Chair of the all-party committee on the Constitution — as a young person, I remember going before him asking for the voting age to be lowered — but also on children's rights in the Constitution. In November 2006, the previous Government announced its intention to strengthen children's rights in the Constitution. This was the time when people were questioning whether this should be done rather than when it should be done. I remember on 2 January getting the first of quite a number of telephone calls from him because he had spent the entire Christmas consuming and reading every book, article and anything he could on the Constitution. He was brimming with ideas and I had to come in at the earliest opportunity. This led to a serious and deep engagement of telephone calls very early in the morning and late in the evening where he would sound one out. Many of us were used to those sounding-out telephone calls. For me, it showed his personal commitment to children's rights and to strengthening the Constitution. When he was Minister for Finance, even with all the difficulties, he earmarked €3 million, which is still earmarked, for the holding of a referendum. He was a true friend and I will always be grateful for his passion, intellect and dedication to children's rights. As a Minister, he openly, collaboratively and respectfully engaged with non-governmental organisations. With many others, I will carry on the fight - his fight - to strengthen children's rights in the Constitution and will do so knowing that he gave us a helping hand, and that he did this above and beyond the call of duty. May he rest in peace.

There is a nice and simple portrait not far from here in the halls of this House of the late Brian Lenihan senior. I have often had occasion to look at it, especially when I have had guests in the House, and to think how fitting it was that there would be a portrait of that man because it was unusual to have the portrait of a modern politician who did not hold the office of Taoiseach, Ceann Comhairle or Cathaoirleach. I have had the sad thought lately, however, on many occasions as I passed that portrait with friends and when on my own, of thinking that the date might come soon when we would wonder whether it would not be fitting to put up a similar portrait of Brian Lenihan junior because it was impossible not to admire him. He was a natural, a Renaissance man, a man of tremendous intelligence, but his approach to knowledge was both playful and respectful. It was a joy to listen to him. It has been said he had a great respect for this House. He had a great respect for politics and democracy, and he took his brief very seriously indeed.

It has been said, I think justly, that Brian probably shone most in his role as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. That was natural because of his own professional background. Those who suggested a number of years ago that there was something inappropriate about barristers having to deal with the financial challenges facing the nation did not reckon on the speed and ability with which he would master his brief. He did so quickly and even if there is disagreement about some of the decisions taken, no one could doubt that the decisions Brian Lenihan took were taken with great intelligence and integrity and having regard to the knowledge at his disposal and to the best of his judgment.

I have said Brian was a delight to listen to and I remember one occasion in particular. We were marking the 70th anniversary of the coming into force of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Our former colleague and Senator, Eoghan Harris, wrote about it in his newspaper column subsequently. It was a joy to listen to Brian on that day because he was talking about a subject he knew so well. He gave such a rich insight into the Constitution. Those who seek to detract from our Constitution or diminish its glories would have learned many a lesson worth learning that day from listening to him as he put it into its historical context and explained the nobility and scope of it.

Brian was a man capable of making the most dull or complex subjects interesting. With others, I listened in fascination during various debates here, including debates on NAMA and finance. Perhaps because he was a natural teacher he had the ability to use language. Even when he used a word that was not in most people's vocabulary, one knew from listening to him that he was using the word exactly suited to his meaning and one also knew what he meant. That came from his great communication ability. We all have reason to be thankful to him because he showed what politics could be. Given his great interests he was a man who could have had many careers but it was always clear from listening to him and being with him that politics was his natural career. It has often been said, fairly, that our politics is mediocre. There is much mediocrity about Irish politics and the way we do it here but he was a man who could have played on any stage. Many of us have reason to be grateful to him. I was delighted to hear Senator van Turnhout speak from her particular area of expertise — it is an important area — about the various and impressive contributions that he made.

I admired Brian's role on the all-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, especially the way in which he handled the hearings and inquiries that led to the 2002 abortion referendum which, in my view, should have passed. However, my focus here today is on the impressive way in which he mastered that brief and brought in all sides, heard their views and the issues were teased out properly respecting the role of the Oireachtas as a place where these issues should be teased out.

On a personal note, I always enjoyed meeting Brian and I remember one particular occasion. It is appropriate to mention it because it took place in the fairly public setting of the Members' restaurant. I was called back one day as I was leaving. "Senator" he said. He would always address one by one's Oireachtas title. He sought to talk about medals. One great thing about Irish life is that when people are at a time of challenge people's generosity shows in a big way. Brian had experienced a great outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from people and had received relics, miraculous medals and letters of support of every kind. He wanted to ask me about them and he probably knew that I might have some interest in the subject. I knew enough to know that my job would be best done by keeping silent because the man I was going to talk to knew a good deal more than me about it and, sure enough, he did. For the next ten minutes he expounded on the subject of medals, cures and so on. I recall that it was playful but deeply respectful. He respected and appreciated deeply the solidarity that people were showing to him.

My colleague, Senator Quinn, wishes to have it remembered that even in his illness Brian came in here during the last days of the Dáil to help ensure that Senator Quinn's Construction Contracts Bill would pass in the Seanad. It would be one of many fitting tributes to Brian if that Bill were to be brought forward and completed in the Dáil in early course.

Many others could outline similar stories about how impressive Brian Lenihan was. It was a privilege to be there with the many people who gathered at his removal and subsequently at his funeral. The sadness that we all feel for his family, his wife, Patricia, and his children, Tom and Clare, is also a sadness we feel for ourselves. However, it is tinged with hope that we will meet Brian again, that we will enjoy his great company again, that we will listen to him as he engages with the same wonder and joy that he did with all his knowledge in his all-too-short life and that he will engage in the great mysteries now. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

I thank the Government for affording us the opportunity to express our sympathies on the passing of Brian Lenihan. His death was met with great sadness, not only within the Fianna Fáil Party but throughout the political spectrum and the island, not only in this state. I extend my sympathies on behalf of the Sinn Féin party to Brian's wife, Patricia, his son, Tom, his daughter, Clare, his extended family and his Fianna Fáil colleagues here today who knew Brian personally and who worked on a day-to-day basis with him.

I knew Brian in my previous capacity as a policy adviser for Sinn Féin. Senator Darragh O'Brien spoke of how when they worked on a day-to-day basis with him it was easy to forget his illness. I am aware personally that he did not let his illness take over his life and that he worked in a Trojan capacity and with great dignity on all the issues facing the Department of Finance. When I first started my job as a policy adviser and a parliamentary assistant, going into the Department of Finance and meeting the Minister was a big deal. However, I was met with nothing but respect and friendliness. Brian Lenihan was a true gentleman and treated us all with respect. He brought us in and told us how it was but there was no animosity. It was genuine friendliness and it saddened me on Friday to learn of his passing. I was with Senator Wilson at the time and I had to reflect personally, remember him and recall how he had treated me and my colleagues in the Department of Finance. I extend my sympathies to his family, friends and everyone who knew him personally. May he rest in peace.

I also wish to be associated with the tributes to the late Brian Lenihan, having known him for the number of years he came into the House. He was probably the best attendee as a Minister in this House. He came into the House with every Bill he brought through. I was always struck by his good humour and his use of the language. He was never in bad humour, always good humour. He had great respect for the House and one thing he would have wished for this House was for it to continue. He always elaborated in the House on the Seanad and how it was an important part of our institutions.

I wish to be associated with the vote of sympathy to Brian's wife, Patricia, his daughter, Clare, and his son, Tom, to his extended family, including Mary O'Rourke, a Leader of the House for several years, and to Conor, a Member of the Dáil, who used to come into the House as a Minister of State. Brian is a great loss not only to the Fianna Fáil Party, but to the nation. Whatever brief he was responsible for, he was always on top of it. Whether he knew what he was talking about, one always believed he knew exactly what he was talking about. He had a great use of the language. As Senator Mullen said of his use of words, we always seemed to understand the words he used at particular times. It was a joy to listen to him in the House and to take advice from him.

I was also struck by the fact that Brian seemed to know everyone by his or her first name, an unusual thing in the Oireachtas in which there are 220 Members. In particular, Ministers do not appear to know Senators, something I have come across on numerous occasions. However, Brian knew everyone by his or her first name and it is a great tribute to him that he did. I wish to be associated with the expression of sympathy to his wife, Patricia, and family.

Members rose.