Wednesday 28 September 2016

Eilis O'Hanlon: Illness isn't a sign of weakness, Minister

Politicians pretending to be invulnerable is more unwelcome proof of the tyrannical cult of youth, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

EVENTS, DEAR BOY: Michael Noonan has undergone treatment to remove fluid from his chest. Photo: Steve Humphreys
EVENTS, DEAR BOY: Michael Noonan has undergone treatment to remove fluid from his chest. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Michael Noonan, who spent part of the festive period in a Dublin hospital recovering from surgery to remove fluid from his chest, says that he first received news from his doctor that he needed treatment "two weeks before Christmas".

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Without wanting to be too pedantic about dates, counting backwards two weeks exactly from Christmas Day would bring him to Friday December 11, which, interestingly, also happens to be marked by the appearance of a rare tweet on @NoonanLive, his official Twitter account.

The Minister for Finance doesn't tweet much, to say the least. Before this latest date, the last time he left a message on the social media site was the previous January, when he posted a link to an article in the Irish Times saying that his strategy for dealing with the banks was working - proving, if nothing else, that he may not use Twitter very often, but he has grasped its fundamental value as a tool for shameless self-praise.

Before that, one has to go all the way back to May 2014 to find another tweet, when he offered his "best wishs" (sic) to Eamon Gilmore as he stepped down as Labour leader.

In total, there are a mere eight messages listed on his account in the past two years. Safe to say then that he only tweets for particular reasons. December 11's tweet was: "Positive outlook ahead."

The casual observer would probably have taken that to be a reference to the economy in the wake of the Budget and Fine Gael's subsequent rise in the polls. In retrospect, one might wonder if those three words contained a more personal meaning as well.

His outlook is indeed positive, Noonan reassured well-wishers last week. "I am well on the mend," he said.

Might it also be, though, that the minister's message of December 11 and last week's statement were both examples of that much maligned art of political spin, designed to convince those minded to doubt it that his medical condition is of no national significance whatsoever and that he remains as fit - for life, but, more importantly, for office - as ever?

If so, it's a rather dispiriting comment on modern politics, especially in light of the subsequent statement: "I will be attending cabinet on January 5 and I look forward to contesting the upcoming general election."

What sort of monsters do they think we are that we would begrudge a 72-year-old man a few days' recuperation from surgery? That we would expect him to drag himself from his bed for another meeting which could easily go ahead, for once, quite well without him?

It's not the fact that he has undergone surgery that is the problem, but the fact that he feels this need to be bullish about it, like the Black Knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail insisting when his arm's cut off that "'tis but a scratch".

There is no evidence that voters expect this level of machismo from their elected representatives. They might want to see the Taoiseach tramping in wellies through the flooded Shannon, but they don't expect a man who had surgery days earlier to be burning the political candle at both ends just for the sake of appearance. Take a break, man. The country can manage a few weeks without you.

It's probably understandable for politicians in their eighth decade to fear that opponents will use a perception of infirmity to undermine them, though. Insecurity is an integral part of political life and it happens all the time.

Hillary Clinton suffered concussion after a fall in 2012. She's been dogged ever since by rumours that she is hiding more serious health issues, including "blinding headaches", insomnia and depression.

A candidate's health should not be used as a political weapon, but politics is a dirty business and sometimes it is.

With the election in spring expected to be one of the dirtiest in memory, it could be that Michael Noonan - who also had treatment for cancer in 2014 afer finding a lump on his arm, undergoing radiotherapy at St Luke's to shrink a sarcoma - not only wanted to reassure colleagues in the party that their biggest asset was fighting fit for the election, but also to pre-empt any potential whispers that he was not up for the job any more as a result of his age.

It's unlikely that any of his political opponents would, or could, exploit the minister's health in an effort to damage him. Not publicly, at least. Ireland isn't in the same position as it was in Christmas 2010, when it was discovered that the then finance minister Brian Lenihan had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and there were immediate worries that he wasn't strong enough to withstand the pressures of steering the country through the all-consuming crisis which it faced.

The economy isn't going to crash and burn if Noonan lets his Government colleagues take the strain for a few weeks while he gets back on his feet.

But that doesn't mean doubts can't be spread more sneakily. There were plenty of negative comments left beneath the story of Noonan's hospitalisation on news websites last week. Most stuck to politics, but a noticeable number did refer to his age.

The traditional release of State Papers over the New Year was also a reminder of just how long Michael Noonan has been around.

Documents released under the 30-year rule date from 1985, when Noonan was Minister for Justice. That feels like ancient history to many voters. More than a third of Irish people weren't alive at all when Noonan was first elected to the Dail in 1981. The Limerick man was already on to his second ministerial post before the youngest TD, Wicklow's Simon Harris, was even born.

Party politics throws up these sharp contrasts between youth and experience and there's always the potential to make mischief with them; but both need one another. It would be as perverse to hold it against one politician the fact that he's in his seventies as it would be to hold it against another that he's only in his twenties.

This cult of youth and vigour, in politics as elsewhere, risks becoming a new tyranny. Everyone has to pretend to be invulnerable, insisting that they don't need sleep, they don't need holidays. It's exhausting listening to them, never mind how draining the act must be for them.

Age has its downsides, but it also has benefits in terms of experience, in having seen and done it all before.

In 50 years' time, those twentysomethings who think they know it all, hot with passion and indignation at the state of the world, will realise that there's nothing new under the sun too.

Churchill was 65 when he first became prime minister, and 76 when he got the job a second time; that didn't seem odd to anyone.

The difference is that Churchill had lived a full life in the interim as a soldier and prolific writer, whereas today's generation of politicians tend to have done nothing but move from election to election, ministry to ministry, with little experience of the real world.

Whether Michael Noonan is as much of a wise old owl as his admirers assert is another matter, but it has nothing to do with his age either way. People live longer and healthier nowadays than ever, but if we want politicians with that experience, it still has to come with a recognition that they will have health issues now and then. That's not weakness, it's part of being human.

Sunday Independent

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