Monday 5 December 2016

It's a growth I intend to defeat - or it will defeat me: Lenihan

Published 05/01/2010 | 05:00

WITH 12 words Brian Lenihan confirmed his cancer and summed up his attitude to it: let battle commence.

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"It's a growth I intend to defeat -- or it will defeat me."

Yesterday's lengthy interview, in which the Finance Minister discussed his pancreatic cancer and his intention to remain in office during fortnightly chemotherapy sessions, was a masterclass in grace under fire.

There was no hint of self-pity during the unhurried half-an-hour in which he spoke of his family and his personal philosophy.

On the contrary, he broadened the scope of the interview to give us a pep talk, telling us we had shown "resilience and grit" during a difficult year, and the world saw we were willing to tackle our problems.

However, many of our problem-makers remain in-situ -- same faces at Cabinet, same faces in AIB and Bank of Ireland. Still, Mr Lenihan sounded rousing.

Predominantly, the interview with Sean O'Rourke on RTE's 'News at One' had the air of a fireside chat. It felt as though Mr Lenihan was addressing the Irish people directly, speaking from the heart; and radio was the perfect medium to project this intimacy.

His voice was strong, the tone matter of fact and at times philosophical. It was the most impressive performance of his career, but much hinged on it.

Primarily, its purpose was to tell us who would be Finance Minister in 2010. Mr Lenihan was laying down a marker that he intended retaining the job. But it had a secondary purpose: to foster confidence that he could hold office while undergoing chemotherapy. And yes, overall he was convincing.

Mission accomplished, minister.

He insisted he could fight his own war, while simultaneously acting as chief of staff in the economic conflict engulfing the State.

But his sense of humour also showed through, along with his unwillingness to take himself too seriously -- even now.

He laughed regularly and made some lighthearted comments, joking about how "this famous, dark, indestructible hair of mine" was not going to be lost to the treatment, although there would be other side-effects.

He then took us on a voyage round his internal organs: "I have a very good liver, very good heart, lungs. The different organs are working very well."

If the country needs reassurance about his health, he will supply us with a verbal X-ray of his innards.

However, what stood out above all was that he did not look for sympathy. Here he is, trying to rescue the economy, straighten out the banking system and beat cancer. It must prey on his mind, occasionally, that cancer carried off his father -- no matter how positive his mental attitude. Any one of those challenges would be a weighty burden, let alone such an unholy trinity.

But there was no impression of a man giving himself over to any 'why me?' indulgence. Instead he seems determined on something he urged everyone to do in 2009: he is putting his shoulder to the wheel.

Blueprint

Clearly he sees a solution to our economic woes and has set out his blueprint: NAMA, recapitalisation of the banks and a series of austerity budgets.

Everyone knows how rapidly Fianna Fail is capable of executing U-turns; Mr Lenihan realises that if he steps away from the finance ministry, even temporarily, his Budget could be dismantled and his vision watered down. He wants to see it through, come what may.

Elsewhere, he was adroit in his handling of TV3's decision to break ranks and broadcast his diagnosis on St Stephen's Day. He said he felt no personal animosity, but noted he was not given enough time to tell his extended family. Most people would sympathise with that.

Less dexterous was his claim that his workload during the first half of 2010 would be easier than the second half, which would dovetail with his cancer treatment plan. There may not be the same sense of crisis as in 2009, but the tasks remaining to be completed are enormous.

NAMA will be busiest during the first three months of the year, when it acquires the largest of its loans. The minister is also looking at a merger of Irish Nationwide and the EBS, as the first step towards a third banking force -- an alternative to the duopoly of Bank of Ireland and AIB. He will be required to make decisions that will change the Irish financial system for decades to come.

Where he tripped up, during the interview, was in the way he stalled over a banking inquiry -- saying some day, but not yet, and citing the national interest. Why is the national interest always presented as synonymous with Fianna Fail's best interests?

He suggested an inquiry could have implications for confidence in the banks and added: "It's something which can take place in the fullness of time." The fullness of time could mean next year -- or 30 years from now.

His comments alert us to the fact that if the unvarnished truth about our banks were to emerge, no private investor would touch them with a bargepole. In which case, the State would be obliged to inject all of the cash needed by them. Mr Lenihan is admitting the truth can't be told -- at least, not yet.

In war, it's been said truth is the first casualty. So if we didn't know it before, we know it now, from the lips of our Finance Minister who intends to carry on serving in the field. This is economic war.

No wonder there were times, listening to his broadcast, when I thought of Winston Churchill.

Irish Independent

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