To say that Brian Lenihan, then the Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister, not to mention Charlie’s right-hand man for 30 years, was the frontrunner in the race for Áras an Uachtaráin in 1990 is a bit of an understatement. When the news broke in January that the seasoned statesman was being considered as the candidate to consolidate Fianna Fáil's consecutive run of presidents, the career politician was viewed as unassailable, with the words “No one can beat Brian to the park,” uttered all over the country.
So certain was Fianna Fáil of his success come November’s vote that speculation ran rife among the country’s political parties that Lenihan’s selection was all part of a canny plan to discourage other parties from even running a candidate. Dick Spring, then the Labour Party leader, was insistent that an election would at the very least take place, giving the Irish people their first chance in almost two decades to actually select their head of state. Vowing that Labour would run a candidate, Spring himself almost stood in the winter election, though the party ultimately chose Senator Mary Robinson – a self-declared liberal whose, image needed some softening if she was going to appeal to middle Ireland.
The Tánaiste, though, was not without his own image problems; an intellectual man, a qualified barrister who had held some of the most important positions at cabinet, a former senator and MEP, Lenihan was unable to shake off his reputation as the cutest hoor in Charlie's cabinet, prone to the odd political gaffe. “Like a lighthouse in the Bog of Allen,” Fine Gael’s John Kelly once said of him, “Brilliant... but useless.”
Brian Lenihan's 1990 election flyer [IrishElectionLiterature]
Returning from a life-saving liver transplant in the Mayo Clinic in the US, later revealed to have been funded by Haughey’s fundraising links to businessmen associated with Fianna Fáil – with Charlie siphoning off the spoils into his own personal bank account – Lenihan’s image suffered after a disastrous appearance on a special edition of The Late Late Show. In an episode dedicated entirely to him and his wife Anne, who’d just published a book about Brian Snr’s battle with liver disease under the title of his most famous catchphrase No Problem, Gay Byrne’s interviews with successive colleagues and friends presented the country with a slimy and unlikeable presidential candidate.
Lenihan didn’t much help matters when he himself admitted that our political elite considered themselves untouchable, gleefully telling Gaybo about the time when he and Haughey were caught knocking back booze afterhours with fellow cabinet chancer Donogh O’Malley by a guard. Questioned by the officer, the ministers responded with: “Will you have a pint... or a transfer?”
Little did any of that matter, as Lenihan was still streaks ahead of Robinson and the Fine Gael candidate Austin Currie, at one point having as much as 49% of first-preference votes, all but guaranteeing his success. But as time has shown more than once, when it comes to the Lenihan dynasty and guarantees, things don’t always go to plan.
On an episode of Questions & Answers on RTÉ television in the run up to the election, former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald raised the issue of Lenihan’s conduct in January 1982.
Garret FitzGerald makes his move on Questions & Answers [YouTube]
Then leader of the country, FitzGerald has asked President Patrick Hillery, himself a former government colleague of Lenihan’s, to dissolve the Dáil. Constitutionally, the Irish President maintains the absolute right – in consultation with the Taoiseach – to grant or withhold a dissolution request.
On national television, FitzGerald asserted that Lenihan had made a number of phone calls to Áras an Uachtaráin in order to sway the head of the Irish state to refuse to dissolve the Dáil, which would have allowed Charles Haughey to form an alternative government without the need for an election – and would serve to strengthen Haughey’s tenuous position as the leader of Fianna Fáil.
FitzGerald had read of Lenihan’s phone calls in the Irish Times, which had run a series of articles on the presidency in September 1990, sourced from a UCD postgraduate student and journalist, Jim Duffy. the student had recorded an interview with Lenihan in May of that year, recording the Tánaiste and de-facto President-elect admitting to making the phone calls.
Responding to the accusation on the political panel show, Lenihan insisted he had had “no hand, act or part” in any efforts to pressurise the Irish president in 1982.
A copy of the telephone logs kept by Patrick Hillery from January 1982, proving that Brian Lenihan made three calls to the President [UCD Arhives]
The Irish Times’ editorial staff, knowing that Lenihan himself was Duffy’s source, doubled down on the story, running, with the student journalist’s consent, a piece confirming that Lenihan had, without a doubt, made the phone calls. Lenihan’s campaign manager, Bertie Ahern, then name checked the student Duffy on national radio as someone who had interviewed the candidate, bringing about a political maelstrom with the young journalist at the centre, besieged by media, politicos, and everyone voter in the country whose appetite for a scandal had reached fever pitch.
Duffy, duly taking legal advice, released and played a portion of the tape at an Irish Times press conference on October 25th, 1990, playing the audio to a rapt audience. What the heard was the voice of the politics Master's student asking: “Did any of the phone calls get through to the President straight?”
“Oh yeah,” Lenihan responds, “I mean, I got through to him, I remember talking to him, and he wanted us to lay off.”
His credibility damaged, things became critical for Lenihan in the wake of the Duffy Tape. With his memory of events under increasingly intense scrutiny, and growing calls for his resignation from the cabinet, an appearance on RTÉ’s 6.1 news bulletin would prove to be the most ill-fated decision of his campaign, and add a new phrase to the Irish political sphere.
Brian Lenihan, and his "mature recollections," addresses the nation [YouTube]
In an interview with Sean Duignan, Lenihan responded to the question everyone was asking with the now immortal, “I want to say that I’m absolutely certain on mature recollection at this stage that I did not ring...” Pausing only to turn towards the camera lens, to face the nation, “President Hillery. And I want to put my reputation on the line in that respect.”
His “mature recollection” would prove a fatal blow to his political career, and a request from Lenihan to see the President to settle matters was ignored by the Áras, and withdrawn by Bertie Ahern.
In cabinet, the Progressive Democrats, the junior coalition partner, informed Charles Haughey that unless Lenihan was dismissed as Tánaiste or an inquiry was set up into the events of January 1982, the party would pull out of government, sending the country back to the polls for an entirely different reason.
Insisting he would never pressurise his “friend of 30 years,” Haughey had a letter of resignation drawn up, and asked his right-hand man to sign it. Lenihan, disgusted by a betrayal of Shakespearean standards, refused, and so Haughey formally requested that President Hillery, in one of his last acts in office, dismiss his would-be successor from government, which Hillery, constitutionally bound, duly did.
Brian Lenihan and Charles Haughey on a 1990 election flyer [IrishElectionLiterature]
But you can’t keep a cute hoor down, and despite the tape, the scandal, and the betrayal of his long-standing ally, Fianna Fáil rallied behind its presidential candidate, and Lenihan was paraded around the country as the natural choice for the presidency, with the slogan ‘Simply the Best’ brandished on flyers and posters. And were it not for Pádraig Flynn's outlandishly ill-advised comments that Mary Robinson’s campaign was marked by a “new-found interest in her family,” he might have even made it.
But the last hurdle Lenihan stumbled at turned out to be the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann. It didn’t matter that he won the biggest stake of first preference votes, a tidy sum of 44%, all things considered. On the second count, with Austin Currie eliminated, Robinson, champion of gay rights, divorce, and abortion, stormed the vote, with female voters abandoning Lenihan in their thousands to back the scorned mother. In November 1990, Mary Robinson became the country’s first female President, as well as the first ever non Fianna Fáil one.
Lenihan remained active in politics until his death in 1995. In the years since, Jim Duffy, the student who changed the presidential election of 1990, has taken up a role in the Fine Gael backroom team. He declined an interview request for this story. After all, he knows how destructive those can be.