Sometimes viewed as the witty schoolmaster of the Dail with a razor-sharp tongue capable of putting down any on the benches, the Limerick man will leave a mixed legacy, suggests Political Correspondent, Juno McEnroe.
Seen as the godfather of Fine Gael who steered the country out of the bailout, Finance Minister Michael Noonan today fulfilled his final acts as the man in charge of the state’s purse strings.
Sometimes viewed as the witty schoolmaster of the Dail with a razor-sharp tongue capable of putting down any on the benches, the Limerick man will leave a mixed legacy, full of drama, struggles, scandals but also humour and political command.
Having taken the reins at the department of finance on Merrion Street, Dublin, during the fraught bailout days when Ireland was close to going bust, Noonan, after adroitly overseeing the escape from the Troika paymasters, will likely be remembered for helping mend the damaged economy.
Equally though, his success has left behind a litany of inquiries and unanswered questions about state asset sell-offs, banking decisions as well as Ireland’s tax arrangements for foreign firms here.
Michael James Noonan, the son of a schoolmaster, was born in Loughill, Co Limerick, close to the Kerry border. He studied primary school teaching at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, followed by economics at University College Dublin. It was here while teaching that he met his future wife Florence Knightley.
Having taken an interest in politics from his mother who was involved in Fine Gael, Michael Noonan later took up teaching at Crescent College in his home county before canvassing for Fine Gael in the Limerick East by-election.
After several years as county councillor, Noonan won a seat for Limerick East in the 1981 general election. He went on to hold that for another 10 Dail elections, a feat not many TDs can claim.
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 in 2001, seeing off competition from Enda Kenny for the job, clinching 44 votes compared to the Mayo TDs’ 28. But it was a short lived tenure as leader.
The 2002 general election saw Fine Gael drop from 54 seats to 33. Noonan even announced his decision to step aside before all seats were filled, with Enda Kenny later taking over as leader.
It was also around this time that the tenacious TD was worrying about his wife’s eroding mental health. Flor’s condition continued to deteriorate but Noonan waited a decade before going public in a media interview about her battle with Alzheimers disease.
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.
A decade after the meltdown of the party and Noonan’s brief leadership spell, he was now back at the apex of political life.
And he had his hands full when he took over finance in 2011 with the banks, Ireland’s debt, unemployment as well as the fact the country was being run by the Troika and key decisions were being made in Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington as opposed to Dublin.
Almost immediately, one of the incoming Fine Gael-led government’s ambitions to burn the bondholders of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide was shot down by ECB.
Michael Noonan’s wife Flor also passed away after 14 years with Alzheimer’s in 2012. Nonetheless, the widowed father-of-five carried on relentlessly.
He took charge of introducing austerity budgets in order to stabilise finances, a task that reduced the popularity of the coalition government.
By early 2013, there was a break for the government with the reconfiguring of the promissory note system by which the State was propping up Anglo.
Noonan during those years though had kept his focus on a key goal, at one stage saying:
“We’ll pop the champagne corks the night the Troika leave town.”
Indeed, the outgoing finance minister recalled this week colourfully how he was able to ring Enda Kenny in late 2013 the day the news came that Ireland would be leaving the bailout.
"He [Enda Kenny] was touring Donegal at the time and he still talks about pulling the car off the road and that being the start of a great 48 hours.
"The Irish people first of all didn’t think it would happen so soon and there was a real celebration that we got our sovereignty back."
Still, during these troubled years and before them too, the witty Limerick man often had time for humour, put downs and straight-talking that will be fondly remembered.
Noonan had at one stage backed proposals to ban teenagers wearing hoodies in shopping centres in order to stop shoplifting; he caught out Sinn Fein in the Dail, quipping that the party was like an “auld fella walking up and down the boundaries of the ballroom of romance” and “nobody wants to dance with him.”
There was an unique moment when Noonan rang into the Late Late Show where comedian and performer Dermot Morgan was mimicking him. Noonan brought the house down with laughter, inviting Morgan to Thomond Park and threatening to collapse a scrum on him.
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 also 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.