Often described as the godfather of Fine Gael, Michael Noonan has been the glue that keeps the Government together — but at times he has been the reason for its headaches.
Managing the finances under Enda Kenny’s first government, Mr Noonan took control of the country’s coffers when the State was close to going bust.
The troika were here, we had no money and Fianna Fáil had raided the cash box and left little to help ease the cruel recession.
Mr Noonan will be remembered as the finance minister who had to oversee toxic bank debts, state payments to the international bailout lenders, and who was partly tasked with ensuring there was enough cash to keep services going. There were no easy choices.
The enigmatic veteran, a dominant figure in national Irish politics for more than 36 years, was more than a formidable adversary for opposition TDs in recent years. Whether it was the sale of AIB, the odious bank debt, or questions around Nama or the housing crisis, he took his detractors on.
At the party’s Ard Fheis in 2012, at which Mr Noonan received a standing ovation, he compared the fragile economy to an old car that needed to stay on the road: “Ya know, I’m like a mechanic. We can’t afford a new car so we have to keep the car we have and get it running as best we can.”
Beyond chairing the Public Accounts Committee between 2004 and 2007, he was justice minister in the 1980s, industry and health minister in the 1990s. In Health, some of his greatest troubles emerged, including the blood contamination scandal. When back in opposition, Mr Noonan won a race for the party leadership. But the 2002 general election saw Fine Gael drop from 54 seats to 33.
However, Enda Kenny helped Fine Gael recover in 2007 and later gave Mr Noonan the powerful role of finance minister in the 2011 Fine Gael-Labour government. With the IMF camped in government buildings, it was no easy task. It was all about “millions and billions”, as admirers might say of Mr Noonan’s characteristic voice.
Kenny paid tribute last night, tweeting: “Michael Noonan’s contribution to restoration of the Irish economy has been extraordinary. Above all else he remains a close personal friend.”
But the initial successful exit from the bailout and Anglo promissory note changes have been overshadowed in recent years. Stories of vulture funds snapping up cheap assets, of shortcomings by Nama and of questionable actions by Mr Noonan in the sale of Project Eagle have caused the Limerick TD problems.
Decisions Mr Noonan took in relation to the care of Grace, a disabled girl in foster care, are the subject of a commission investigation.
Not all ends well in politics. But the respect Mr Noonan, 73, will take from the Dáil, his colleagues, his own party and from his department will cushion any criticism. Furthermore, he was the minister in charge when Ireland exited the bailout and history will always remember that.
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