'I'm satisfied I can carry out all of my essential functions'
FINANCE Minister Brian Lenihan is determined to remain in charge of the public purse strings despite his battle with cancer.
Although ministers are expected to rally round and fill in for him at speaking engagements, he has pledged to carry on working in his department's offices, answering ministerial questions in the Dail, giving media interviews and taking part in cabinet meetings.
But Mr Lenihan made it clear yesterday he was "fit and well" and was not in favour of a "super junior" minister being specially appointed to help him out as he undergoes treatment for his illness.
"I'm satisfied I can perform my essential functions as Minister for Finance and that's important. There isn't much point having a Minister for Finance and a substitute Minister for Finance," he said.
At a briefing yesterday, Mr Lenihan said Taoiseach Brian Cowen had been completely and utterly supportive and had never suggested he resign as Finance Minister.
"I went to him as soon as I was released from the hospital. He was very shocked to learn of my condition and very disappointed.
"He was very insistent that he believed I had the capacity to continue. I explained the medical position to him and he was satisfied," he said.
Mr Lenihan is facing several key challenges while he undergoes cancer treatment during the next six months, most notably the reduction of the Government's €22bn in borrowings to keep the public finances afloat.
He said he was determined to bring the banking crisis to a close in the first three months of this year, using the "legal armoury" of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) legislation and the state banking guarantee legislation.
"I think it's fair to say if you look at international commentary that there's a fair degree of confidence that we have a very definite handle on our budgetary position and we're approaching having a definite handle on the banking position," he said.
Mr Lenihan said that he would be heavily involved in overseeing the operation of NAMA, which is buying up to €54bn of toxic property loans from the banks with taxpayers' money.
The minister will be receiving support from his hand-picked economist Dr Alan Ahearne, his special adviser Cathy Herbert and senior officials in the Department of Finance. He acknowledged he would also be getting help from other ministers for speaking engagements.
"It's important that all of the ministers beam the necessary messages," he said.
He said his chemotherapy treatment might be "tiring and exhausting" but would not affect his mental faculties. And he joked he had been assured by his medical advisers that he would not lose his "mysterious and indestructible dark hair".
"I still quite don't believe that, I have to say, but that's the position that's been warranted to me," he said.
He said it was possible he might have to have surgery before July as part of his cancer battle. But he played down fears that his chemotherapy treatment would keep him out of action if another new banking crisis emerged.
"I'm undergoing treatment as an outpatient, not as an inpatient, so I will be available to deal with matters as they arise," he said.
But Mr Lenihan vowed he would review his position if he felt unable to carry on -- and that "the country will come first in this". He said he had no dietary problems and also pointed out that one of the main causes of pancreatic cancer -- smoking -- did not apply in his case. "I've never smoked a cigarette in my life," he said.
Fianna Fail Dublin North TD Darragh O'Brien said there would be no problem finding ministers or backbenchers to take over Mr Lenihan's public speaking engagements.
"We have excellent relationships with Brian Lenihan, he has built that up, and he will have massive support."
Mr Lenihan, who has been touted as a future Taoiseach, said he was focused on the long-term future of the economy rather than his own political future. "It's my general experience that politicians who focus too much on the next job they might be in make a bit of a balls of the job they are in," he said.