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Andrew Lynch: Having set out a clear path for the economy, it would be tragic if he were unable to follow it through

Go dance on someone else's grave.

That's the defiant message Brian Lenihan is sending out with his decision to stay on as Minister for Finance -- despite the shocking revelation that he's been diagnosed with cancer.

While most people in Leinster House will be hugely relieved by his decision, this story is not going to go away any time soon -- and at the very least, it adds another element of unpredictability to the political and economic battles that lie ahead in 2010.

As the devoted son of a Cabinet minister who spent the last decade of his life battling serious illness, Lenihan won't have taken this decision lightly.

A nature-lover who enjoys reading books in French, he's a more rounded personality than most of his colleagues and could return to private life any time he wanted. If he believes that he can carry on his heavy duties while receiving the medical treatment he needs, he's entitled to be taken at his word.

At the same time, it would be naive for Lenihan or anyone else to think that his reassuring statement will be the last word on the matter. While there's been widespread revulsion at the callous manner in which TV3 broke the news on St Stephen's Day, the Minister's health is now a matter of legitimate public concern.

His public appearances will come under intense scrutiny in the weeks ahead -- and if he shows even the slightest sign of physical frailty, the rumour mill is likely to go into overdrive. This is a worrying prospect, not just for Lenihan himself but for the Government as a whole.

Worst

Having just about survived a remarkably turbulent few months, the FF-Green coalition is privately hopeful that the worst is finally behind them.

What Brian Cowen's team needs now is a period of calm for their harsh economic medicine to take effect, not constant speculation that their star player may be forced to leave the field.

While Lenihan has correctly pointed out that the first half of the year in the Department of Finance is quieter than the second, he would be wrong to expect an easy ride over the next six months.

Already a row is brewing over the Government's U-turn on cutting senior civil servants' pay, a decision that was quietly announced on December 22 when few people were paying attention.

Labour's Joan Burton has promised to challenge the legality of the changes when the Dail resumes on January 19, an occasion which may give us some idea of how the Minister's health is holding up. Looking at some of the other issues about to land in Lenihan's in-tray, it's clear the Government will need him to be at the top of his game.

The public sector unions will soon reveal how far they're prepared to go in their campaign of strike action to protest against the Budget cuts.

Their mood is hardly likely to be improved when Lenihan announces how much money he's handing over to recapitalise the banking system, a crucial decision that can't be postponed much longer. Given that he's a leading member of the most unpopular Irish Government in history, the public reaction to Lenihan's illness has been truly remarkable. Quite apart from the natural sympathy any decent person would feel, there is real fear over what might happen if he were forced to stand aside.

Having set out a clear road for the economy to follow, it would be tragic to see him denied the chance to follow it through. For the country's sake, we must all hope that rumours of Brian Lenihan's political demise turn out to be greatly exaggerated.


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