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Brian Lenihan, ex-Irish finance head, dies

DUBLIN -- Former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who oversaw Ireland's struggle to avoid national bankruptcy and the collapse of its banks even as he battled cancer, died Friday at age 52, his family and colleagues announced.

Lenihan was lauded as a man of professional commitment and personal integrity who suffered the ill fortune of becoming finance minister in mid-2008 -- the moment Ireland's celebrated Celtic Tiger boom was about to transform into one of Europe's worst financial disasters.

"His unyielding determination to do his duty, in spite of a serious illness, was remarkable and inspirational," said longtime government and party colleague Micheal Martin.

Barely four months into his new job, Lenihan faced the imminent collapse of Ireland's biggest gambler on the runaway property market, Anglo Irish Bank, and the prospect that five other domestic banks could also topple as a result.

He responded with a blanket guarantee of domestic banks, the world's first such move. Lenihan declared that the promise wouldn't cost taxpayers a penny because confidence was all the banks needed.

It failed spectacularly as subsequent government-ordered investigations unveiled huge property-based toxic debts in all six banks. Taxpayers found themselves on the hook for repaying tens of billions.

The crisis appeared to take a stark physical toll on the normally ebullient Lenihan, who became pale and drawn during 2009. He finally went to a doctor late that year complaining of insomnia and a potential hernia. Advanced pancreatic cancer was found.

He vowed to stay on -- and even became many Irish voters' favorite choice to succeed Brian Cowen as prime minister. Lenihan declined, saying the fight to save Ireland from bankruptcy couldn't afford any political turmoil.

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