Can a cabinet minister fight a life-threatening illness and rescue his country’s economy at the same time?
That’s the question facing Ireland’s finance minister Brian Lenihan and the Republic’s govern- ment following his shock diagnosis with pancreatic cancer.
The minister, backed by Taoiseach Brian Cowen, has already made his choice – he will continue with what he calls the “essential functions” of his office while undergoing six months of an aggressive form of treatment.
Lenihan says: “My doctors have advised me that I am fit to fulfil my duties. If that were to change I would be the first to recognise it. I will act in the best interests of the country and in accordance with medical advice.”
Lenihan, a former law lecturer at Dublin’s Trinity College, has endured a baptism of fire since his appointment two years ago. He has confessed to working 14-hour days as he struggled with the banking meltdown and recapitalisation, the establishment of the National Assets Management Agency and a series of hair shirt Budgets.
Lenihan has admitted asking his doctors if stress could have caused his cancer.
After a somewhat shaky start in the job he has emerged as the government’s most polished performer – confident, reassuring and a good communicator. Against the odds, Lenihan recently delivered a Budget that reduced public spending by 4bn euros, with cuts in welfare and public sector pay – areas previously regarded as untouchable.
The financial markets were impressed and so were the Conservatives in the UK where the party re- commended that chancellor Alistair Darling should take a leaf out of the Lenihan book.
On a wave of sympathy and given the fact that the fragile Irish economy is second only to Greece on Europe’s worry list, it is understandable that the government might want Lenihan to stay at his post. But it is debatable whether this is realistic, given the seriousness of his illness.
And in the aftermath of an emotional outpouring of goodwill, questions are being asked about whether he can or should continue, given the micro-management required by the economy.
One commentator says: “Lenihan says he will put the country first and stand down if things get too much. Perhaps it would be best if he put his health first and withdrew from government temporarily so he could return later on top of his game.”