Brennan, Seamus (1948–2008), politician and government minister, was born in Galway city on 16 February 1948, the second of five children (four sons and a daughter) of James Brennan, a Fianna Fáil activist and builder (fifty employees in 1976), and his wife Tess (née O'Donnell), a housewife and guesthouse proprietor. He was educated at Scoil Fhursa and St Patrick's national school, Salthill (Galway), at St Joseph's College, Galway (an Irish-language secondary school run by the Patrician Brothers), and took a B.Comm. through Irish and a BA (Econ.) at UCG. In 1989 he took an M.Comm. at the UCD business school. At UCG Brennan also served as secretary to the college's Fianna Fáil cumann, and made the acquaintance of Ann O'Shaughnessy, a law student (later a solicitor); they married (c.1972), and had two sons and four daughters.
Organiser of victory
At the March 1971 Fianna Fáil ard fheis, Brennan – co-opted to the national executive the previous month at the age of 22 – strongly supported Jack Lynch (qv) and denounced rowdy supporters of Kevin Boland (qv). In October 1973 he gave up his career as a chartered accountant with a Dublin firm to replace the veteran Thomas ('Tommy') Mullins (qv) as general secretary of Fianna Fáil; the journalist John Healy (qv) humorously spoke of a 'gasúr [small boy], his political milk-teeth still in his head' (Ir. Times, 3 November 1973). Brennan was the youngest secretary of any major European political party, and was charged with overhauling the party organisation. Numerous 'paper cumainn' (maintained by public representatives to supply votes at conventions) were abolished and a youth organisation, Ógra Fianna Fáil, was established to cultivate the youth vote and groom new candidates. (Brennan and a few other staffers personally interviewed potential dáil candidates to weed out mavericks.) In public statements he advocated a combination of social liberalism (legal divorce and unrestricted contraception) and free-market economics. This combination characterised his career.
A visit to America sponsored by the US state department in 1976, where Brennan observed the successful presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, inspired him to import new American electoral techniques into Irish politics. He was generally recognised as the mastermind of the 1977 general election campaign which gave Fianna Fáil a landslide victory, based on a manifesto laying out specific measures which it was claimed would solve the contemporary economic crisis (and which showed voters at a glance how they personally would benefit). The victory was aided by a grassroots organisation prepared months in advance and primed with literature spelling out the party's policies and providing a detailed account of how to organise the campaign at local level, and on such razzmatazz as party T-shirts and cardboard hats (with the slogan 'Bring back Jack'), and a campaign song, 'Your kind of country' (sung by Colm Wilkinson). Brennan also displayed a pioneering interest in the electoral benefits of opinion polls and the use of computers to tabulate surveys. He revisited America regularly, maintaining a network of contacts with American political experts. (In 1997 he persuaded Fianna Fáil to employ the American consultants Shrum, Devine and Donilon in their election campaign – an unprecedented move.) Brennan was one of Jack Lynch's small 'kitchen cabinet' of advisers, and always remained personally close to Lynch. He was one of Lynch's eleven nominees to the seanad in 1977, and after Brennan's election to the dáil in 1981 the former taoiseach openly called him a future Fianna Fáil leader.
Although the quasi-Keynesian policies of the 1977 manifesto – including abolition of motor tax and domestic rates – produced an unsustainable economic bubble rapidly followed by a slump, Brennan's campaign was still recalled over thirty years later as a high point in professionalism; his techniques were copied by Fine Gael as it reorganised in opposition, and Brennan's place in Irish political history was assured.
Entering the dáil: opponent of Haughey
As a polished television performer (whose modest air contrasted with the bombast of many colleagues), Brennan regularly put the Fianna Fáil case in the mass media and appeared in such unconventional venues (for traditional Fianna Fáilers) as an anti-apartheid rally, a concert by the Irish punk rock band the Boomtown Rats, the reopening of Captain America's diner in central Dublin, and the launch of a book by the satirist (and opponent of Fianna Fáil) Hugh Leonard (qv). Brennan began to investigate potential dáil constituencies, but his association with the unsuccessful leadership campaign of George Colley (qv) led to strained relations with Charles Haughey (qv) as taoiseach. In September 1980 Brennan resigned as general secretary of Fianna Fáil, and took up part-time positions with his father's firm (the James Brennan Group, Galway) and with the management consultancy Inbucon.
At the 1981 general election Brennan contested the middle-class Dublin South constituency, where Haughey openly supported an outgoing TD, Síle de Valera; Brennan was elected through a well-organised grassroots campaign, highlighting such issues as the nascent drugs problem and the need for urban commuter railways, while de Valera was defeated. Brennan soon expressed sympathy for the proposal by the new Fine Gael taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald (qv), for a 'constitutional crusade' (amending the constitution to facilitate reconciliation with Ulster unionists), but withdrew under pressure from Haughey. In the February 1982 general election, de Valera was imposed as a candidate on the constituency after she failed at the convention, but was again defeated by a combination of Brennan and the other outgoing Fianna Fáil TD, Niall Andrews (qv). Brennan promptly tried to organise a leadership challenge by Desmond O'Malley (whom he preferred to the rival dissident leader Colley), claiming a different leader could have secured an overall majority. After this challenge proved abortive Brennan avoided active participation in further plots, though he followed O'Malley in supporting an unsuccessful vote of no confidence in Haughey as Fianna Fáil leader in October 1982. An attempt by local Haugheyites to de-select Brennan as a candidate at the November 1982 election was unsuccessful. For the rest of his career, assiduous constituency work gave Brennan a secure base in Dublin South (where he was TD, 1981–2008), despite a strong anti-Fianna Fáil vote and rivalries with other local Fianna Fáil TDs.
Brennan was a member of Dublin County Council for Rathfarnham (1985–7). His passion for statistics and grassroots politics was reflected in his co-authorship (with former journalist and Fine Gael TD Ted Nealon (qv)) of guides to the results of the 1981, February 1982 and November 1982 elections, and (with Eric Murphy) of Brennan's key to local authorities (1986).
Brennan supported the unsuccessful attempt to depose Haughey after the 1983 phone-tapping scandal, but thereafter believed that Haughey's internal opponents should play a waiting game. Vocal in his criticisms of the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government's tax policy as deterring enterprise, he complained that the semi-state companies that dominated much of the Irish economy absorbed capital and managerial resources for insufficient return.
After O'Malley's loss of the Fianna Fáil whip in May 1984, Brennan joined discussions about the possible formation of a new party, but pulled back because of personal loyalty to Fianna Fáil and doubts about the commitment of those involved. Against his personal preferences, he followed party policy in voting to restrict the availability of contraceptives and to oppose the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement. When the new party, the Progressive Democrats (PDs), materialised late in 1985, Brennan tried to dissuade Fianna Fáil members from joining and steadied party morale by making a high-profile declaration of loyalty after the unexpected defection of the former cabinet minister Bobby Molloy in February 1986. (This caused resentment among some PD members who had anticipated his support.)
Salesman for Ireland: ministerial office, 1987–94
In March 1987 Brennan became minister of state at the Department of Industry and Commerce, with responsibility for trade and marketing. He oversaw legislation aimed at promoting and facilitating Irish exports, revamped the companies act, and acted as 'salesman for Ireland' (Ir. Times, 10 July 1992), undertaking a wide variety of initiatives to open up overseas markets and encourage new marketing techniques. (This included assisting Goodman International's sale of beef to Iraq, leading to accusations at the beef tribunal of 1992–4 that he helped shut smaller Irish firms out of the market; he claimed he secured better prices for Irish beef exports by discouraging undercutting.)
Brennan was director of elections for Fianna Fáil at the June 1989 general election, and subsequently helped negotiate the formation of a coalition government between Fianna Fáil and the PDs. His modest and conciliatory personality made him an effective negotiator, and in future years he was prominent in the deal-makings that followed Fianna Fáil's adoption of coalition politics. He was appointed minister for tourism and transport in the new government (with responsibility for communications added in 1991). Perhaps the most significant decision taken by Brennan as a government minister was his September 1989 'two airline' policy, whereby air routes to Britain and the Continent were divided between the state airline Aer Lingus and the low-budget airline Ryanair. The decision to grant Ryanair exclusive rights on some routes (notably Dublin–Stansted and Dublin–Luton) provoked hostility from Aer Lingus employees (who wielded significant electoral influence in north Dublin) and was denounced in an Irish Times editorial (22 September 1989), but led to the development of Ryanair as one of the world's largest airlines. Brennan also oversaw the sale of the loss-making state shipping line B & I to Irish Continental Group.
After Haughey's resignation in February 1992, Brennan was transferred to the Department of Education by the new taoiseach, Albert Reynolds (qv). Here he oversaw the production of a major green paper, 'Education for a changing world', which advocated a more transparent and devolved educational system emphasising change and the promotion of an enterprise culture. Many of its provisions were implemented by Brennan's successor in the ministry, Niamh Bhreathnach.
During the November 1992 general election campaign, Brennan publicly ruled out a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Labour, believing the parties were fundamentally incompatible. On the formation of a Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition government in February 1993, Brennan was demoted to minister of state for commerce and technology at the Department of Enterprise and Employment, where his major achievement was the establishment of a task force to report on the promotion of Irish small businesses (its report in March 1994 led to several measures to assist the funding of small firms, and many of its proposals were enacted by the 1995–7 'rainbow coalition' government). Brennan combined his junior ministerial position with the unpaid role of director of organisation for Fianna Fáil. Although he produced significant organisational reforms (assisted by his genius for communication), in the long run these failed to overcome the party's organisational weakness in Dublin, and the tendency (exemplified by his own constituency) for the party organisation to fragment into personal machines for competing public representatives.
After the collapse of the Reynolds government in November 1994, Fianna Fáil went into opposition, with Brennan as front-bench spokesman on tourism, transport and communications.
Chief whip and millennium observances
After the 1997 election led to a new Fianna Fáil–PD coalition (under Bertie Ahern as taoiseach), Brennan became minister of state at both the Department of the Taoiseach (i.e., government chief whip) and the Department of Defence; as chief whip, he had particular responsibility for securing the continued support of four independent TDs who provided the government's overall majority. In 2000 Brennan implemented major changes to dáil procedure, which included streamlining committees and giving them extra powers, more regular questioning of ministers, extra dáil sittings, and a civil service code of conduct.
Brennan also served as Fianna Fáil's principal media spokesman (his ready availability to media and researchers was a noteworthy feature of his career, though his self-promotion was resented by some colleagues), and chaired the National Millennium Commission, which oversaw and funded a wide range of community projects to mark the beginning of the new millennium (defined as 1 January 2000). Every household in the country was sent a 'millennium candle', to be lit simultaneously at the final sunset of 1999, and a certificate informing them that a broadleaved tree had been planted on behalf of the household in a millennium reforestation scheme; the workforce were asked to donate their last hour's pay of 1999 to children's charities. Other projects opened by Brennan personally included the installation along the River Liffey in central Dublin of a boardwalk, the refurbishment of 'pilgrim paths' around the country as walking routes, and the creation of a 'grove of reflection' near Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow, in recognition of victims of institutional child abuse.
Seeking a legacy: minister for transport and after (2002–08)
After the coalition triumphed at the 2002 general election, Brennan was promoted to minister for transport. He became part of an informal cabinet axis including PD ministers and sympathetic Fianna Fáilers (notably finance minister Charlie McCreevy) who aimed at cutting back public expenditure (once the election had been won) and radically restructuring the public services. (Brennan was privately sceptical of the 'social partnership' deals with trade unions concluded by the post-1987 Haughey and Ahern governments.) He immediately established a reputation as an active minister, ordering prompt implementation of a penalty points scheme for driving offences (agreed in 1998 but repeatedly postponed) which produced an instant drop in road fatalities. He let it be known that after 1997 he had abandoned former ambitions of becoming taoiseach, and simply wanted to leave a permanent legacy: '[I]f I get a couple of years here I can deliver nine or ten big policy initiatives that are essential to the country. I don't give a damn after that' (Hannon, 170). Brennan struggled to clear regulatory obstacles to already-agreed road and rail projects (including the Luas 'green line' from St Stephen's Green to Sandyford, which he opened in June 2004), proclaiming that the secret to administrative success was to 'put in the hours and pile on the pressure' (ibid., 160). Brennan thus played a major role in the infrastructural developments which, though behind time and over budget, became one of the positive legacies of the post-1997 Fianna Fáil-dominated governments. His more ambitious plans included: breaking up the airport authority Aer Rianta, and making Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports independent state entities (achieved, but more slowly than he intended); a light rail link between Dublin airport and the city centre (later postponed indefinitely); the partial privatisation of Dublin bus services; and the erection of a privately owned second terminal at Dublin Airport, which aroused strong trade-union opposition and led to brief transport strikes. (He also experienced press allegations of corrupt behaviour, formally examined and found to be baseless; he suspected a smear campaign by persons unknown.)
Government reverses at the 2004 local and European elections were followed by the reassertion of populist economic policies by Ahern; McCreevy was removed from the cabinet by his appointment as European commissioner, and in the consequent reshuffle (29 September 2004) Brennan was moved – despite his conspicuous reluctance – from transport to the 'spending' department of social and family affairs; his successor in transport, Martin Cullen, dropped some of Brennan's more controversial policies. (Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary, whose airline would have dominated a private second terminal, later lamented Brennan as 'the best, most courageous, and most visionary transport minister Ireland ever possessed' (Ir. Independent, 12 July 2008).) This shift to further expansion of public spending assisted Fianna Fáil to victory at the 2007 general election, but proved a major turning point, leading to the crisis of Irish public finances after 2008. In his new department, Brennan tried to restructure the social welfare system to take account of social change (notably changes in family structure; he allowed single mothers to receive welfare payments while cohabiting) and by trying (with little success) to put mandatory pension provision on the political agenda.
After the near-total collapse of the PDs at the 2007 general election, Brennan played a leading role in negotiating a new coalition with the Green Party, advising Green representatives: 'You are playing senior hurling, now, lads, but you are playing lads with all-Ireland medals' (Ir. Independent, 10 July 2008). In the new cabinet Brennan became minister for arts, sport and tourism (June 2007). He tried to develop arts infrastructure and increase accessibility, but was disabled by his rapidly developing cancer.
When Brian Cowen succeeded Ahern at the beginning of May 2008, there was some speculation that Brennan might become minister for finance (and possibly European commissioner on the completion of McCreevy's term). Instead, Brennan announced his retirement from office on medical advice while stating that he hoped to be able to return to domestic or European politics at a later date. He died in Dublin on 9 July 2008.
Seamus Brennan embodied the modernising, managerialist politics and the associated concern for public-relations management that came to dominate Ireland from the late twentieth century, and reflected many associated cultural changes. In latter years he spoke of exhilaration at having witnessed 'Ireland as it got into its stride … watching the metamorphosis from grey, colourless, repressive and drab into an explosion of colour, life, expression and vibrancy' (Lahiffe, 11). His achievements as an electoral organiser overshadow (perhaps unfairly) the ministerial record of a talented administrator who made a significant impact in some areas yet never quite reached his potential.