Deadpan finance minister Michael Noonan cashes in his chips

The ‘godfather’ of Fine Gael, who steered the country out of the bailout, Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, has fulfilled his final acts as the man in charge of the State’s purse strings, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe.

Sometimes regarded as the witty schoolmaster of the Dáil, 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, and 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, and Ireland’s tax arrangements for foreign firms here.

Michael James Noonan, the son of a schoolmaster, was born in Loughill, County 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, Noonan later took up teaching at Crescent College, in his home county, before canvassing for FG in the Limerick East by-election.

After several years as a county councillor, Noonan won a seat for Limerick East in the 1981 general election. He held that for another 10 Dáil elections, a feat not many TDs can claim.

Former Minister Michael Noonan TD with his mother Mrs. Anne Noonan, Mount Trenchard, Foynes, Co. Limerick, and his wife Florence, in a file picture from 1983.
Former Minister Michael Noonan TD with his mother Mrs. Anne Noonan, Mount Trenchard, Foynes, Co. Limerick, and his wife Florence, in a file picture from 1983.

Beyond chairing the Public Accounts Committee, between 2004 and 2007, he was justice minister in the 1980s, and industry and health minister in the 1990s. In health, he had some of his greatest troubles, including the blood-contamination scandal.

When back in opposition, Noonan won a race for the party leadership in 2001, seeing off competition from Enda Kenny, clinching 44 votes, compared to the Mayo TD’s 28. But it was a short-lived tenure as leader. The 2002 general election saw Fine Gael drop from 54 seats to 33. Noonan announced his decision to step aside before all seats were filled, with Kenny becoming leader.

The tenacious TD was worrying about his wife’s eroding mental health, but he waited a decade before going public about her battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Kenny helped Fine Gael recover in 2007 and 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.

A decade after Noonan’s brief leadership spell, he was now back at the apex of political life. But his hands were full, with the banks, Ireland’s debt, unemployment, and the fact that the country was being run by the Troika.

Immediately, the incoming, Fine Gael-led government’s ambition to burn the bondholders of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide was shot down by ECB.

Flor died in 2012. Nonetheless, the widowed father-of-five carried on relentlessly.

He introduced austerity budgets to stabilise finances. By early 2013, there was a break, with the reconfiguring of the Anglo promissory note.

During those years, Noonan had kept his focus on a key goal, saying: “We’ll pop the champagne corks the night the Troika leave town.” This week, the outgoing finance minister recalled 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.”

Michael Noonan with Enda Kenny
Michael Noonan with Enda Kenny

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.

Recently, he caught out Sinn Féin in the Dail, quipping 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”.

Many years ago, Noonan rang into the Late Late Show, on which 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 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. He was the minister in charge when Ireland exited the bailout and history will remember that.

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