Thursday 14 November 2019

Minister of national importance

Daniel McConnell

DETERMINED: Brian Lenihan, right, with Taoiseach Brian Cowen, is said to be 'very upbeat'

THE last six months have been the most stressful in the tenure of any finance minister in the history of the State. Brian Lenihan has had to contend with the virtual collapse of the banking sector, culminating recently with the passage of legislation giving effect to Nama, the State's bad bank, the design of which was overseen by the minister to help restore financial viability to Ireland's banks.

He was also to the fore in facing down the militant trade union movement in the days and, indeed, hours leading to his Budget last month.

It was a week after he introduced his third budget in 18 months that Mr Lenihan admitted himself to the Mater Private Hospital on December 16 for treatment on a suspected hernia problem. Initially, it was described by his aides as a minor problem, but Mr Lenihan was forced to miss the Dail vote on the public sector pay cuts, which was passed by 80 votes to 69.

The previous evening, he attended the Oireachtas Finance Committee Christmas dinner at Fire Restaurant in the Mansion House in Dublin. He was described as being in "good form" and he left for home relatively early.

The 50-year-old Finance Minister awoke in some pain, and after some hesitation, he admitted himself into the Mater Private Hospital on Eccles Street in Dublin. According to his spokesman, he spent two nights in hospital while doctors did a series of tests on him. He was "happily working from the hospital bed" as the tests were being carried out.

He checked out and went home with his wife, Circuit Court Judge Patricia Ryan, to rest, and was in good spirits.

After another short stay in hospital, on December 22, the minister announced the names of the nine members of the Nama board and published the second independent review on credit availability for small and medium enterprises. He also gave a briefing to political and financial journalists. He did not reveal anything about his health. It was, however, at this stage that Mr Lenihan's condition was diagnosed by doctors.

Rumours about Mr Lenihan being seriously ill began circulating among political and media circles on Christmas Eve, with some speculation that it might be cancer.

Senior government advisers were in contact with a number of national news organisations, asking them not to run the story of Mr Lenihan's illness until after the Christmas break.

On Christmas Eve, TV3 director of news Andrew Hanlon, on learning of Mr Lenihan's condition, called in his senior political reporters and prepared to run the story.

It has emerged that the station's finance correspondent, Brian O'Donovan, was to report the story.

After speaking with Mr Lenihan's spokesman Eoin Dorgan, Hanlon decided to postpone running the story until St Stephen's Day, giving the minister 48 hours to tell his family, including his two children Tom and Clare.

The morning of St Stephen's Day marked the turning point for the story. The minister's spokesman, Eoin Dorgan, issued a statement shortly after 11am. In it he said: "The minister is well and enjoying the Christmas break with his family and does not propose talking to the media about anything until the new year."

By 1pm, it became known that TV3 was intending to break the Lenihan story on its 5.30pm bulletin.

Word then filtered through that the station was lining up cancer specialist Professor John Crown to discuss Mr Lenihan's condition. While all the signs were that TV3 was going to break the story, government aides were asking other media outlets not to run the story on compassionate grounds if TV3 decided not to go ahead with it.

At 4.56pm, an email from TV3 to national newsdesks arrived to say they were running a story of "national importance". The one-line email from producer Tom Fabozzi simply read: "For your information, TV3 is running a news story of national importance in our 5.30 bulletin."

In the minutes before the news bulletin went on air, the station also ran a ticker tape information bar during the previous programme highlighting they were about to break a big story.

Then at 5.32pm, news anchor Collette Fitzpatrick told the Irish people that Mr Lenihan was suffering from cancer. She then did a live interview with Ursula Halligan, the station's political editor, who had, by this stage, taken over the story. During her report, she twice referred to Mr Lenihan in the past tense, which was to cause huge anger among some of Mr Lenihan's colleagues and members of the public.

Following Halligan's report on the matter, Fitzpatrick stated that Mr Lenihan had pancreatic cancer, and interviewed Prof Crown, who delivered a gloomy commentary, saying that it was a "life-changing" condition.

Within minutes, RTE was running the story on its Six O'Clock evening news bulletin, reporting that the minister was refusing to comment on stories that he was ill, and wouldn't be making any statement until the new year.

In the hours after the TV3 story, politicians from all parties expressed their anger at the "inappropriate and insensitive" report. Mr Lenihan's constituency rivals, Joan Burton and Leo Varadkar, condemned the report. The government press secretary said any minister's health affairs were a personal matter.

Later on Saturday night, director of news Mr Hanlon, defended the station's handling of the report.

He said: "TV3 has handled the matter with sensitivity and compassion. We had the story on Christmas Eve and we decided to hold it for two days to enable him to inform members of his family.

"We believe this to be a story of national importance. He is the most important minister in the Government at the moment," he said.

Mr Hanlon also denied that TV3's interview with Prof Crown was inappropriate, claiming Prof Crown was not talking about Mr Lenihan but about pancreatic cancer in general. An hour after the broadcast, a TV3 spokeswoman said Halligan was deeply upset by having to report the story.

"Ursula was really, really, really upset to hear the news. She works closely with Brian. Everyone was devastated in TV3 to hear the news about Brian. We wish him a speedy recovery," the spokeswoman said.

Last Monday's newspapers were full of condemnations of TV3, with several politicians calling for Hanlon and Halligan to resign.

Fianna Fail TD for Dublin North Darragh O'Brien described the report as an "absolute disgrace", adding: "The way TV3 went about this was very wrong. It's the lowest I've seen them stoop. To claim they were showing sensitivity because they had these details on Christmas Eve but held off for two days is very distasteful. The story has completely invaded the family's privacy. Ursula Halligan should now consider her position. If she had any guts she would apologise and resign, and Andrew Hanlon should consider his position as well."

As a result of the broadcast, there was also some predictable comment from some politicians over the issue of privacy. Labour's Liz McManus, the party's communications spokeswoman, said TDs should explore guidelines on privacy. "I think it's totally inappropriate for any television station to take advantage of something like a personal health issue."

Labour MEP Nessa Childers condemned the TV3 report, calling it a "clear and disturbing breach".

She called for a more robust and certain legal framework to protect individuals' privacy.

Later on Monday, Mr Lenihan's teenage son Tom posted a note on a Facebook site set up in support of his father. He said the outpouring was "very much appreciated". He said: "Hi I'm Tom, Brian's son, I showed my dad the page. Thanks to everyone for your kind wishes, we appreciate it."

Yesterday, the site, entitled "Politics aside, we wish Brian Lenihan well" had almost 4,000 messages of support.

Also that day, Mr Lenihan's brother, junior minister Conor, at the races in Leopardstown, said his brother was determined to beat his illness.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland said on Thursday that it had already received more than 70 complaints about the TV3 report.

By Wednesday, speculation was mounting as to what would happen once the Government returns from the Christmas break.

Would there be a reshuffle allowing Mr Lenihan to take on a less onerous department or to step down while fighting the illness?

Minister for Social Welfare Mary Hanafin said she had spoken to Mr Lenihan and that he was "very upbeat" and determined to beat his illness.

She said she was shocked at the news, and appalled by the timing of the report, saying that while Mr Lenihan was a public figure he has a right to be sick in private.

Now, as we look to the new Dail term, it appears Mr Lenihan is determined to "carry on" and he is expected to make a statement to that effect tomorrow. However, speculation continues this weekend about how long he will be well enough to continue in his position at such a crucial time for the country, or if he will be forced to take a break to concentrate on the intensive treatment required by his illness.

Comment also centres on just who within the Cabinet would be tough enough to continue the difficult course mapped out by Mr Lenihan for the economy, and the dire consequences of failing to follow that course.

Sunday Independent

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