15th June 2011
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 his 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 his 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.
He 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 his 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 Brian Lenihan 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. I, along with many others, 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.