Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Seamus Brennan

I have resumed blogging within the new Irish Times site and will be duplicating those blogs here. It's strange returning to instant journalism (churnalism as Nick Davies would have it) after an absence of several months. The first post marks a sad occasion - the passing of Seamus Brennan.

Here it is:

Seamus Brennan came up with one of the best summations for Bertie Ahern, when Ahern was Fianna Fail chief whip at a time the party was riven by splits and sulphorous enmities.

"As chief whip, Bertie Ahern learned to come down the white line and take both sides of the street with him. I don't know how he got away with it."

In many ways, it could serve as an epitaph for Brennan himself. He was universally popular with political friend and foe alike in Leinster House and that innate likeability served him well as a very effective chief whip and capable minister. He radiated calm too - even in the deepest of crises. There was no better politician to go in and fix a problem or appear in the media to becalm a storm.

But unlike Bertie - who was a man for all seasons - Brennan had a very distinct ideological core. He and Charlie McCreevy were seen as the two senior politicians within the party who were Fianna Fail by nature but PD by instinct. Besides his much-publicised decision from the 1980s to open up the aviation market, Brennnan had big privatisation plans when Minister for Transport for Dublin Bus, the airports, Iarnrod Eireann and Bus Eireann.

"We need to get a bit of jizz into the market," was his mantra, delivered in the flat Galway city accent that never deserted him despite living in Dublin for over half his life.

Jizz was the word I always associated with Brennan. Jizz just pinged off him, if you excuse the slang. His optimism and positive attitude were always present. He was crestfallen when he was moved from transport into Social and Family Affairs. But despite going from a Peedee style free-market department to an old-fashion Fianna Fail 'socialist' department, he quickly adapted to the changed circumstances.

Once he got over his initial disappointment, he couldn't ignore his own nature and took to what some considered an atypical Brennan portfolio with typical gusto. Journalists loved him because he could always provide an instantaneous announcement or yarn. He used to do a carousel of interviews with politcal journalists at Christmas. Each would come away with at least a dozen stories on initatives and new projects. Problem was that every other journalist had also got the same 'exclusive'. And more often than not the brilliant idea or scheme did not have the stayability to survive lits appearance under banner headlines in print.




He was never cynical about it. Media savvy sure. But there was a bit of wish-fulfillment to it as well, even though he knew that only a fraction of it would become real.

I remember doing an interview with him when I worked in the Connacht Tribune where he said his political dream was to arrive back in Galwayin an open-topped car like John F Kennedy did as Taoiseach. He never achieved that ambition and knew from mid-career that it would not be.

The Kennedy reference was unsurprising. He was enamoured by US Politics. He travelled there in 1976 for the Presidential campaign and saw at first hand the slick marketing and, yes, jizz of the Jimmy Carter campaign. Then a youthful general secretary of Fianna Fail - and a loyal acolyte of Jack Lynch - Brennan imported many of those tricks to the Fianna Fail campaign in 1977 that saw the party score a landslide victory, unprecedetned before or since. He never lost his interest in the US political system.

He was a stayer too. He was one of the Gang of 22 who opposed Haughey but still became a minister under him. He might have started off as outside the inner circle but he had an uncanny ability to make himself indispensable. He did the same trick with Albert Reynolds. And with Bertie Ahern. During the autumn reshuffle of 2004, Brennan had to fight a mighty rearguard battle to retain his place in Cabinet. He did not conceal his disappointment at losing Transport then but soon bounced back. In the run-up to last year's elections, there was a lot of speculation that Brennan would go if FF were returned to power. But because of his past dealings with the Greens (as chief whip) he became part of the negotiating team and was instrumental in brokering the deal for the new coalition. It would have been seen as an act of political churlishness by Ahern if Brennan had been dropped. Even this year, when his health was deteriorating, he still displayed the same ambition and appetitite, though it was becoming more evident that this was a battle that he could not win.

Brian Cowen mentioned this morning that his colleague had come out to meet and greeet him at the Dundrum centre when he and Eamon Gilmore did a joint canvass during the Lisbon campaign. He was clearly ill but made little of it. I met him that day. He was characteristically upbeat and positive and, as s always asked me, a fellow Galwegian, how things were in Salthill and Glenard and Devon Park. As I write this my email inbox is clogged with tributes to him. A man who was able to go down the white line and take both sides of the street with him. He will be genuinely missed. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam.

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