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Andrew Lynch: Brian's bravery will pose quite a problem for the opposition

Brian Lenihan has long had a reputation as one of the biggest brains in Leinster House. Now we know that the man has guts as well. His courageous interview yesterday managed to achieve the seemingly impossible -- it inspired people to ring up Joe Duffy's Liveline because they wanted to say something nice about a politician.

Once the plaudits have died away, however, a few uncomfortable truths remain. The brutal reality is that the most important politician in the country right now has a potentially life-threatening cancer.

Unrealistic

He insists that he wants everybody to treat him as if nothing has happened -- but deep down, he must realise that a "business as usual" attitude is unrealistic in the long term.

For a start, Lenihan's illness poses an awkward dilemma for the two opposition TDs whose job it is to hold him to account in the Dail. Fine Gael's Richard Bruton and Labour's Joan Burton have both been star performers over the past year, pursuing the Minister relentlessly whenever they've managed to catch him out on a point of detail. The next time they get to their feet, are they really expected to ignore the fact that they're addressing a dangerously sick man?

When the Dail resumes later this month, the first item on the agenda should be an almighty row over the Government's U-turn on pay cuts for senior civil servants. Under normal circumstances, this is exactly the sort of issue that the Bruton'n'Burton team enjoy sinking their teeth into.

Lenihan has already privately phoned both TDs and urged them not to treat him with kid gloves -- but the fact remains that for all concerned, trying to pretend that everything is just the same as before is going to be virtually impossible.

While the Minister has breezily pointed out that there isn't another Budget due until December, he can hardly deny the fact that running the Department of Finance is a hugely demanding job at any time of year.

The upshot of all this is that we are entering completely unchartered waters. The opposition will be torn between carrying out their regular duties and their human sympathy for a man that most of them privately like and admire. The media must decide where to draw the line between respecting the Minister's privacy and our responsibility to report matters of national importance.

Lenihan has wisely taken the precaution of declaring that he won't be issuing regular bulletins about his condition. While that's perfectly understandable, politically it may be hard to sustain. The public will surely want to be given some sort of idea about how his chemotherapy is working -- and if they feel they're being kept in the dark, they may well come to the conclusion that no news is bad news.

It's also fair to point out that Lenihan's condition could have profound implications for the future leadership of the party.

Coup

There are persistent rumours that unless Brian Cowen's dire opinion poll ratings improve this year, desperate FF backbenchers will try to mount a coup against him. Until now, Lenihan would have been a leading contender to be the next Taoiseach -- but his cryptic comment yesterday about "fading ambitions" means that Micheal Martin is left in pole position.

The optimism and lack of self-pity in Lenihan's public response has been truly impressive. However, it's also reminiscent of his late father's famous catchphrase: "No problem!"

While everybody in politics desperately wants him to get well as soon as possible, the Minister's illness is a big problem indeed -- and that's going to become uncomfortably clear in the not too distant future.


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