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Irish debate disclosure of minister's cancer

The public disclosure of Brian Lenihan's cancer diagnosis caused outrage in Ireland.

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.