PUBLIC reaction to the news of Brian Lenihan's illness -- a mixture of dismay, affection and apprehension -- has summed up perfectly the way in which the Finance Minister is regarded by people of all political views and none.
When he took up his present job in May 2007, he was seen as a brilliant lawyer and successful Justice Minister but a novice in financial matters. In his early months in office, he made several questionable decisions. But gradually his confidence visibly increased, and with it the respect of the public.
His personality was essential to the process. Not for him the tribal warcries still heard, though increasingly faintly, from Fianna Fail. He is stylish, courteous and good-humoured. These qualities have helped him to the remarkable position in which people tolerate painful but necessary measures when they come from him. Moreover, he has done a most remarkable job in maintaining our credit -- in every sense -- abroad, supremely in relations with the European Commission and European Central Bank. All in all, he has steered a course whose steadiness could not have been predicted at the beginning of the crisis. He is without doubt the key member of the Cabinet.
It was therefore inevitable that when the news of his illness broke the reaction went much farther than sympathy for the minister and his family. The country wanted answers to the questions whether he can return to work and whether, if the need arises, anyone can replace him.
Typically and commendably, he has responded by deciding to make a television statement in which he will take the nation into his confidence. A pity that he is setting, not following, an example. Brian Cowen should have taken an initiative of this kind a year ago. But right now, the country wants to see and hear the Finance Minister.
No doubt he will act as his doctors dictate. Only a foolish person ignores medical advice. He, and everybody else, must accept what the professionals say.
But it is fair to note what everybody wants to hear, for his own sake, the comfort of his family and the wellbeing of the country that his medical condition is treatable, and that he can regain the health and strength necessary for him to resume his arduous and essential work. Seldom has any public figure faced a personal crisis backed by so much goodwill; and seldom has anyone deserved it so much.