Posted tagged ‘Brian Lenihan’

Brian Lenihan

June 11, 2011

It was with great sadness yesterday that I learnt about the untimely death of Brian Lenihan, former Irish Finance Minister and more recently Deputy Leader of Fianna Fáil. Brian and I were students together in TCD in the 1970s, and subsequently we kept in touch and met from time to time. He was an exceptionally gifted thinker, someone who felt the attraction of politics while never quite leaving the academy behind. In academic terms he was of the best kind, a man with genuine intellectual curiosity while also having the gift of clear communication.

He will be missed. My condolences go to his family.

A very public illness

January 5, 2010

Some days ago I wrote a post in which I asked some questions about what is, and what is not, appropriate in terms of media coverage of a person’s private life. The trigger for that post was the news item that had been carried a couple of days earlier by the Irish television station TV3 about Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan’s health, revealing that he had cancer. The comments responding to my post were lively, and a majority of those commenting took the view that TV3 had been justified, while some (myself included) wondered whether the timing had been necessary or right.

Of course since then the Minister has made a public statement on his health, confirming that he has pancreatic cancer and explaining the treatment that will now follow, beginning with chemotherapy. He also confirmed that it is his intention to continue in his role as Minister for Finance, though he would review that if he felt that he could not give the job his proper attention.

I should perhaps say that I have known Brian Lenihan for some considerable time. He and I were students together in TCD in the 1970s, and we have been friends for some time. He was one of the brightest law students of his generation, but he was also always extraordinarily generous in his attitude to others, and in subsequent years he became a very gifted academic and, then, politician. I hope I am not misusing this platform when I say that I am sure that everyone reading this will join me in wishing him a speedy recovery to full health.

But I also have to say that I applaud his decision to continue as Minister. In saying this I am not making a political comment, nor am I here saying anything about the merits of his politics or that of the government. Rather I am saying that as someone who is recognised as a highly talented politician, he is right to want to continue to apply his talents to the very difficult economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. But more than that, I am applauding his decision to be a role model for those who also face this kind of challenge to their health. Medical experts say that maintaining a professional focus during treatment for cancer enhances the patient’s chances of recovery.

Those who have expressed doubts about his continuing as Minister have, understandably, suggested that the country’s economic health cannot be a secondary consideration at this time, and of course that is right. But that does not mean that we must assume that Brian Lenihan as a cancer patient is less able to address the tasks that come with his office, or at any rate that he is less able to address them than anyone who might be appointed in his place.

I think that sending the signal that once you have cancer you cannot be trusted with anything important would be a devastating one to all those who face this still terrible illness. And so I believe that the Minister’s choice is correct. I also believe that he has shown great openness and courage, and I hope that he gets the support and encouragement that he needs.

All the news that’s fit to print

December 29, 2009

One of the key questions for modern journalism is about where to draw the line between news which the public have a legitimate right and expectation to know and items that are really just an intrusion into a person’s privacy. And before we go down that road, there is a corresponding question that needs to be asked of us, the general public: what do we want the media to tell us, and are we consistent between what we say in answer to that question and what we are prepared to read or listen to?

Of course the trigger for such a discussion right now would be the report by the Irish television station TV3 that the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan TD, has pancreatic cancer, a story they released despite the fact that they knew he had not told all of his friends and family and was intending to do so over the Christmas period. As far as I know, TV3 have not stated why they released the news in this way; the only statement from the station that I have come across was from Andrew Hanlon, Director of News at the station, who said: ‘We held it for two days to enable him to inform his family’. Apart from the attempt to portray the station as having behaved sympathetically, I cannot see in that statement why they did it at all. To be fair, it is perfectly correct to report on the Minister’s illness, as his role is crucial in the government and his personal ability to handle the issues facing the economy is a relevant issue; but there can be no real argument that this needed to be known during the Christmas holiday and could not have waited another week.

My own view is that the station got it badly wrong and behaved inappropriately in a very sensitive matter. The issue here is one of timing rather than of substance. And of course the reason why they did it was that they believed that it would provide them with publicity that would be commercially useful to them; the tut-tutting of the other media was not only not a problem, but perhaps was an additional bonus in PR terms. Such news items work for the media because, in the end we, the public, go for it. We may join the ranks of the tut-tutters, but we do so having read or listened to the item.

The problem in all of this is that it is difficult to formulate a set of principles on the public interest in such matters, or indeed on public accountability for those who exercise power, which is clearly set apart from what is just salacious interest. The French media did not report the existence of François Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter while he was President, although the story was well known. Was that the correct position? Or was it right to suggest, as some British journalists did at the time, that Mitterrand’s marital infidelity should have been fair game because it showed that he could not be trusted to keep his word, and that this was a matter of public interest?

Generally speaking, it is my view that the Irish media behave with a significant degree of responsibility. But even here we may need to develop a better understanding of what constitutes news that should be printed (or broadcast), and what is simply a matter of private concern that the public does not have a right to know.

Budget and Estimates woes?

October 14, 2008

It is probably better to comment in more detail on today’s announcement of the Budget for 2009 and the Book of Estimates after I have had an opportunity to study the fine print a little more. As far as I can see from the announcement by the Minister for Finance and the accompanying documentation, third level education has been hit in a number of ways – but we must await a more detailed explanation of some of the elements before we can offer a balanced assessment. The Education and Science vote as a whole did not fare too badly, with an increase over 2008 of 2.7 per cent. However, the allocations made through the HEA (i.e. the grants paid to universities and institutes of technology) have been cut in nominal terms by 2 per cent, which in real terms is a cut of not far off 10 per cent. Whether this turns out to be the position will depend somewhat on what happens to the revenues generated by the increase of the so-called ‘registration charge’ to €1,500. If this is clawed back by the government, then things are as stated above. If it (or any of it) goes to the institutions, then the position may be better.

However, it is tempting to identify in this a message to the third level sector that it is not seen as a significant contributor to national strategic aims at this time. Allowing also for the fact that many of the institutions are already in financial crisis, the worse case scenario above would have a catastrophic effect on the system.

To balance this a little, I should point to the sum made available for capital projects (which is quite substantial), and the increase in funding for Science Foundation Ireland. The Minister in his speech also made a passing and slightly veiled reference to the possibility of the return of tuition fees.

Other than that, seems like bad news. We all had to expect a very tough outcome today, but overall the government’s approach to public spending as a whole turned out to be less tough than some had anticipated – so putting into relief the treatment of third level education.

In addition, the Budget documents announce the abolition of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) – though whether this can be done that simply remains to be seen…

I shall make some more informed comments when I had studied the documentation more closely, and when the IUA has had the benefit of a briefing from the HEA.