Irish crisis over cancer diagnosis for finance minister Brian Lenihan

Brian Lenihan has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The health condition of Ireland's Minister for Finance is the pressing topic in Ireland this week. Brian Lenihan has been the public face of the budget cuts that have slashed public spending but at the weekend he was in the news on a far more tragic matter when he was diagnosed with a very serious cancer.

I was arriving in Ireland expecting a flood of coverage of the continuing church scandal but that was quickly wiped off the front pages. In Ireland today it seems you are never more than a few minutes away from a fresh crisis somewhere.

Lenihan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a usually fatal condition, and the furore that the report of his illness set off says a lot about Ireland today. The news was broken by a television station, TV 3, and the fact that they did so caused consternation in much of the other media who probably knew the story but had kept quiet about it for privacy reasons.

The reality is, however, that cutthroat journalism is fast becoming a staple in Ireland as in everywhere else, and TV 3 took advantage of the slow Christmas season to break open a story that has massive implications for Ireland's future.

The downside was that Lenihan apparently had not even told his own teenage children of the diagnosis which it seems was only made in the past few days and was leaked from somewhere, either at the hospital or from his close circle of friends, to the media.

At just 50 years of age, charismatic, good looking and a talented politician even in the eyes of the opposition parties in Ireland, Lenihan seemed to have everything going for himself.

Indeed several newspapers recently have hinted that Lenihan could challenge current Prime Minister Brian Cowen for his job sometime soon. The question now is if he can stay in office much longer while fighting the cancer or who will replace him.

The news of his cancer diagnoses comes at a time when Lenihan had become the public face of the fightback against the economic recession, which still has Ireland in its icy grip.

Lenihan had started poorly in his job – he is a lawyer by training – but had soon grasped the economic fundamentals and was widely praised, especially in The Irish Times for his recent budget.

He was a man about to reach the zenith of his political career from a family long connected at the highest circle in Irish political life. Now, however, comes the awful diagnosis that was splashed over every newspaper here yesterday when it was made public.

It cannot be easy for any human being to read stories about what may be his death warrant as Lenihan had to yesterday, and the sympathy of the nation was clearly with him.