09 July 2008

In memoriam Séamus Brennan

Ireland mourns the death of the leading Fianna Fáil politician and former government minister Séamus Brennan, who died at the age of 60 at his Dublin home in the early hours of this morning. He had been seriously ill for some time and resigned from the Cabinet for health reasons exactly two months ago, when Taoiseach Brian Cowen took over from Bertie Ahern.

Séamus Brennan was born in Galway on February 16th, 1948 and educated at St. Joseph's Secondary School. He later went to University College Galway (UCG) and University College Dublin (UCD), where he studied Economics and Commerce and qualified as an accountant.

His interest in politics started early and already as a teenager he supported Fianna Fáil and canvassed for the party during election campaigns. In 1973, at the young age of 25, Brennan was appointed secretary general of Fianna Fáil at a critical time for the party, which had just gone into opposition, after having been in government since 1957. With enormous energy Brennan modernised the party and improved its organisation within seven years. One of his probably most historically important decisions in that time was to put the then relatively unknown young Dubliner Bertie Ahern on the 1977 list of candidates for the Dáil. He was elected, to the surprise of his own party, and the rest is history. After the large election win Fianna Fáil and Jack Lynch were back in power with a 20-seat majority. Séamus Brennan was rewarded with a Taoiseach's appointment to the Seanad.

In 1979, after the resignation of Jack Lynch, he supported George Colley, but when Charles Haughey narrowly won the party's leadership contest, Brennan lost his position and a new secretary general of the Haughey faction was appointed in his place in 1980.

The following year Brennan was elected to Dáil Éireann himself, standing in the Dublin South constituency, where he had made his home after moving to the capital from his native Galway. He was re-elected there at every election since, and his death will now cause a by-election at a difficult time for Fianna Fáil and the government.

During the 1980s Séamus Brennan was a prominent member of the "Gang of 22", who tried unsuccessfully to wrestle control of Fianna Fáil from the controversial Charles Haughey.
Brennan supported the reformer Desmond O'Malley, and for some time it was expected that he would join the Progressive Democrats (PDs) when they were founded by O'Malley in 1985 as a new break-away party from FF. But instead - for reasons that will probably never be known - he remained loyal to his party.

In 1987, after Fianna Fáil returned to power, Séamus Brennan was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for Trade and Marketing. In 1989 he joined the Cabinet as Minister for Tourism & Transport, and two years later he was also given responsibility for Communications.
When Albert Reynolds succeeded Charles Haughey as Taoiseach in 1992, Brennan was one of the few ministers who remained in government and was appointed Minister for Education. In 1993 a Fianna Fáil–Labour Party coalition was formed and - together with some other FF ministers - Brennan was demoted to Minister of State, in order to make room for new Labour Party ministers.

Fianna Fáil went into opposition in 1995, and the new party leader Bertie Ahern (his former protégée) made Brennan FF spokesman for Transport, Energy & Communications.
In 1997 Fianna Fáil returned to power with Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach and Séamus Brennan as Government Chief Whip and Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Defence. After another successful election in 2002, Brennan became Minister for Transport. In this post he is probably best remembered for his privatisation initiatives of public transport systems, including the change of the state airline Aer Lingus into a private company.

But after only two years, in the 2004 cabinet reshuffle, Brennan was moved to the Department of Social & Family Affairs. It is well-known in political circles that this was not Brennan's wish.
It has also been said that Brennan would have been sacked from the government by Bertie Ahern, if the then Tánaiste, Mary Harney (another former member of the old "Gang of 22") had not intervened on his behalf.

In May 2007, after yet another - even though narrow - election victory, Séamus Brennan was moved once more, this time taking charge of Arts, Tourism & Sport. It was to be his last political post. When Brian Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach on May 9th, Brennan said that he did not seek any position in Cowen's cabinet and resigned for health reasons, returning to the backbenches as a normal TD.

Some people said that he had jumped, before he was pushed, but political observers knew that Séamus Brennan was indeed battling with a serious illness for quite some time. Obviously it was even more serious than most thought, and Séamus Brennan died this morning at the relatively young age of 60 at his Dublin home, to the day two months after he resigned his last ministerial post.

He is survived by his wife Anne, two sons and four daughters. And he will be sadly missed by many in Ireland, not only the members of Fianna Fáil, the party he lived and worked for almost all his life.
Brennan was one of the few senior FF politicians with the ability to see the larger picture and make compromises and agreements across ideological and party lines.
During his time as Government Chief Whip one of his main tasks was to liaise with four independent TDs who supported the government at the time. This was probably one of the most difficult jobs ever given to any Irish politician, but Séamus Brennan handled it well and succeeded.

President Mary McAleese expressed her sadness at the passing of the former minister and paid tribute to his contribution to the country.
"Séamus played a major role in the building of modern Ireland," she said. "His many talents were such that he could have been successful in several fields, yet it was a mark of the man that he chose to devote those gifts to public service and the public good. His achievements and contribution will leave a lasting mark on our country."

Taoiseach Brian Cowen described Séamus Brennan as an astute and capable minister, who was interested in getting things done, while Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin paid tribute to his extraordinary contribution to Irish politics.

Mary Harney, his former Cabinet colleague and friend of many years, praised Brennan's political skill. "He ran one of the most professional constituency organisations in the country and won the confidence of the electorate of Dublin South time and time again, without fail," the Minister for Health and former leader of the Progressive Democrats said this morning.

On behalf of the opposition, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said: "Séamus brought a deep human understanding to all aspects of politics and could always be relied upon to respond in a calm and measured way to any crisis."

As Ireland is now in recession and facing a severe economic downturn and an uncertain future, a man like Séamus Brennan will be missed even more.

The Emerald Islander

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