Irish debate disclosure of minister's cancer

DUBLIN, Ireland ― The Irish Finance Minister confirmed Monday after days of intense speculation that he has a dangerous form of cancer, though he will continue to serve in office while undergoing treatment.

But it wasn’t just the news that Brian Lenihan has cancer that has upset many people in Ireland — it's the way the story was broken. The practice of disclosing fully the medical conditions of public figures is not common in Ireland, and the way Lenihan's case was handled has caused widespread outrage.

His condition became a matter of public debate on Dec. 26 when TV3, an independent television station in Dublin, claimed that the minister had “pancreatic cancer,” a leading cause of cancer death. The television station gave the minister’s family 48 hours notice of its intention to go public with the story “as a matter of public interest.”

The 48-hour notice was seen as an ultimatum to go public with a private matter and the issue is being referred to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Until recent years the prognosis of cancer was so sensitive in Ireland that it was almost unacceptable to use the word in public. This lingering prejudice partly explains the anger at TV3.

The station claimed that it held the story for two days “to enable [Lenihan] to inform his family,” according to TV3’s director of news, Andrew Hanlon. It then informed viewers that Lenihan was suffering from a malignant tumor and that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In his first public comment on Irish radio on Monday, Lenihan said that cancerous tissue was found at the entrance to his pancreas in the week before Christmas.

On Dec. 24 several news organizations had asked for a response to reports in political circles that he had a serious illness, and that they had been promised a statement in the New Year.

“The medical condition of the minister of finance is of public interest, I don’t have an issue about that," Lenihan said. "I don’t see why it was of public interest to broadcast this information on St. Stephen’s Day [Dec. 26] as distinct from, say, 4 January. I would have liked a slightly longer opportunity to explain matters to my wider family and friends.”

Much of the anger over the way the story broke was directed at TV3’s use of cancer specialist Prof. John Crown to describe the effects of pancreatic cancer from which the recovery rate is low. Crown defended his decision, saying “I spoke in generalities, describing patients having disease which could either be ‘cured’ or ‘controlled.’ I never mentioned the words ‘prognosis’ or ‘outlook.’ I stressed the need to give up smoking, the single most important avoidable risk factor.”

Lenihan, who is married with a son and daughter, said he considered stepping down after his diagnosis but after consulting with Prime Minister Brian Cowen had decided to continue as finance minister. He said he would cancel speaking engagements while receiving chemotherapy.

Asked to justify continuing running the nation’s finances when receiving debilitating medical treatment he replied, “I won’t be gallivanting around, I will probably have more time to work at my desk.”

Lenihan is a pivotal figure in Ireland’s struggle to recover from a devastating financial and economic crisis. He is the architect of a controversial scheme to create a National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) under which the government will provide €54 billion ($78 billion) to Irish banks in exchange for an estimated €77 billion ($111 billion) in loans. The write-down in the value of the loans to developers is thought to be significantly greater than predicted and will put Irish banks under pressure to raise more capital.

Despite introducing harsh budgetary measures involving cuts in welfare services and reductions in the pay of public servants to meet Ireland’s borrowing costs, Lenihan is regarded as the most competent minister in the Fianna Fail-led government and has been widely tipped for future leadership. He comes from a political family: His father, also Brian Lenihan, was a member of previous government and his aunt, Mary O’Rourke, is a Fianna Fail member of the Irish parliament. O’Rourke told Midlands Radio that her nephew told her he had a long talk with the prime minister.

“They, the two of them, decided he would stay on and do his — as he referred to it himself quaintly — his constitutional duty,” she said. She disclosed that Lenihan will begin treatment on Jan. 7.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the senior Brian Lenihan is no longer alive.