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Sam Smyth: Politicians soldiered on despite crippling illnesses

BRIAN Lenihan was a real chip off the old block yesterday when he spoke so positively and purposefully about working through treatment for his cancer.

His namesake and late father suffered a life-threatening illness when he was Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister, yet he battled on to fight a presidential election the following year.

After he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1988, Brian Lenihan Snr had a transplant and remained as Foreign Affairs Minister until a general election the following year.

Unlike his father who had to travel to the Mayo Clinic in the US for his transplant and take several months to recuperate, Brian Lenihan expects to remain in Ireland to fulfil all his duties as Finance Minister.

Mr Lenihan is not the first senior minister in government to remain in office and receive treatment for a grave illness or the effects of a serious accident.

Eamon de Valera travelled to Utrecht in Holland for eye surgery when he led Fianna Fail in the early 1950s; and the late Charles Haughey had a couple of serious accidents as finance minister in the late 1960s.

Winston Churchill was dogged by regular bouts of depression when he was the wartime British Prime Minister and suffered a serious stroke before he retired in 1955.

And Churchill's successor, Anthony Eden, who dragged Britain into the disastrous Suez Crisis in 1956, was addicted to amphetamines.

But there was no prurient media demanding medical records and health updates back them and no journalists pried into the late Seamus Brennan's obvious illness before he stood down from office a few months before he died 18 months ago.

Although he was clearly unwell serving as Arts, Sports and Tourism Minister, Mr Brennan was allowed to step down from office without any public fuss or media speculation.

It wasn't widely reported at the time, but Fisheries Minister Tony Killeen attended vital EU Council meetings while receiving chemotherapy for cancer.

After he was diagnosed with bowel cancer, Mr Killeen had surgery in October and December 2008 and six months of gruelling chemotherapy from January to June last year.

Although he declined to discuss it yesterday, Mr Killeen, who has since been given the 'all-clear' on his cancer, has spoken to Mr Lenihan about the difficulties of receiving chemotherapy while serving in government.

The late Jim Mitchell was taking heavy medication before his liver transplant while suffering grievously from cancer as he chaired the Public Accounts Committee's most famous inquiry.

Yet, like the late Tony Gregory TD, who died from stomach cancer a year ago, Mr Mitchell worked through his illness.


Mr Haughey nearly died after a complication during a routine procedure for kidney stones at the Mater Private Clinic when he was Taoiseach in 1988. It took him months to recover and it affected him for the rest of his life.

But Mr Haughey had a much more mysterious accident on September 20, 1968, as finance minister, when he was driving in Co Wicklow. The late Neil Blaney said that the injuries he sustained had changed his outlook and personality.

The circumstances of the accident were never explained but afterwards a directive was issued to garda drivers that they were not to allow anyone, including their designated ministers, to drive their cars.

Irish Independent