Andrew Lynch: Lenihan is one of our finest politicians ... so why was he treated like this by TV3?
The shocking news that Brian Lenihan has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is, first and foremost, a personal tragedy for the man himself and his family.
It's also a massive blow to the government and the country as a whole. Whatever you think of his policies, there's no doubt that the Minister for Finance is one of the FF-Green coalition's most outstanding performers -- and if he is forced to step down while receiving medical treatment, the hole left behind will be exceptionally difficult to fill.
The Lenihan family's pain has been made even worse by the disgraceful way in which the news was broken by TV3 on St Stephen's Day. Many people in the media have known about this for several days but agreed to delay announcing it until after the holidays out of respect for the Minister's wife and young children.
TV3 showed no such decency, deciding instead to broadcast the story with breathless excitement before the man had even had a chance to tell some of his colleagues.
The man who made the fateful decision, TV3 Director of News Andrew Hanlon, has protested that he gave Lenihan 48 hours warning before running the news on the station's 5.30pm bulletin.
At any other time of year, that might be fair enough -- but during Christmas week it's unforgivable.
The Lenihan family have suffered more than their fare share of illnesses and tragedies over the years and at the very least they should have been given the rest of December to cope with this awful news in private.
They certainly didn't need to see the disgusting spectacle of TV3's political editor Ursula Halligan talking about Lenihan in the past tense or a consultant oncologist going into the gory details of pancreatic cancer. None of us did.
In fact, until we know a lot more about Lenihan's condition it would be pointless to speculate too much about its political implications. The Minister has made it clear that he will wait until early January before announcing any major decisions about his future. He is still a relatively young man at 50 and everyone in Leinster House, regardless of what party they belong to, hopes that he has a long and healthy life in front of him.
Politics is a ruthless business, of course, so it's hardly surprising that some FF insiders are quietly asking themselves who might be in line to take over at the Department of Finance in the event of a vacancy. At this early stage, two names stand out above all others: Micheal Martin and Dermot Ahern. Martin is the smoother media performer, but Ahern has the tough-guy image that might prove valuable at a time of economic crisis.
The one thing we know for certain is that if the country does need a new Minister for Finance in early 2010, he (or she -- don't rule out Mary Hanafin) will have a tough act to follow. Lenihan has only been in the job a year and a half, but he's packed more activity into that short space of time than other ministers manage in a decade.
Three budgets, the banking guarantee and the creation of NAMA have all taken place on his watch -- and while any one of these crises might have broken a lesser man, Lenihan actually seems to have grown stronger along the way.
Until this terrible news broke, he was rapidly emerging as a leading contender to succeed Brian Cowen, maybe even before the next general election.
The job of Minister for Finance is an important one at the best of times. Right now, it's probably the most crucial position in government. If Lenihan feels he can continue to give it his all, then well and good -- if not, he will surely have enough sense to stand aside for his own sake as well as the country's.
Over the last 18 months, Brian Lenihan has proved himself to be a formidable political competitor. He will need to draw on all those fighting qualities to get through the personal health battle that lies ahead in 2010. We wish him well.