Former minister and Haughey loyalist

Michael J. Noonan . PHOTOGRAPH: PADDY WHELAN / THE IRISH TIMES

Michael J. Noonan . PHOTOGRAPH: PADDY WHELAN / THE IRISH TIMES

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 01:27

Michael J Noonan, who has died aged 78, was a former Fianna Fáil minister for defence and strong supporter of Charles Haughey.

Noonan’s intense loyalty to the controversial taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader was reciprocated. Haughey appointed him to ministerial office and in 1980 he opened a dairy unit in Noonan’s 160-acre farm in Bruff, Co Limerick.

This attracted the caustic comment from Noonan’s political opponents that it was the first time a taoiseach opened a cow shed.

Noonan’s Limerick West constituency colleague Gerry Collins, who had backed George Colley over Haughey in the 1979 leadership contest, was not invited.


Intense rivalry
There was intense local rivalry between Noonan and Collins throughout their years in the Dáil and when they served in cabinet together.

Noonan was educated at the Salesian agriculture college, Pallaskenry, Co Limerick, and his political career began when he was elected to Limerick County Council in 1967. He had previously been active in Macra na Feirme, rising to national president in 1963. He was also associated with Muintir na Tíre, the GAA and local development organisations.

Noonan was appointed to the RTÉ authority by Seán Lemass in 1965 and served until 1969, when he was elected to the Dáil for Limerick West. An Irish Times profile of the then backbencher in the 1970s noted that the took his politics and religion with the same degree of seriousness.

“To him the clinic is like the confessional,’’ it added. “He listens like a scholarly curate to the troubles and cares of his constituents and then sits down and turns out some 150 letters a week.’’

Noonan voted for Lemass’s son-in-law, Haughey, in the 1979 leadership contest and became a diehard supporter.

When he retired from politics in 1997, there was no mention of the other Fianna Fáil taoisigh under whom he had served, Jack Lynch, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. Noonan paid tribute to the “steadfast spirit of de Valera, the vision of Lemass and the dynamism of Haughey’’.

Haughey appointed him to the front bench as agriculture spokesman in 1983 and made him minister for defence in 1987. It was a turbulent time because of a bitter controversy over soldiers’ pay. Army wives heckled him as he left a commissioning ceremony at the Curragh.


Coalition aftermath
He was called “chicken’’ and placards bore the message: “Enjoy today – this could be your last few days.’’

When Fianna Fáil entered coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1989, Noonan was among those dropped from cabinet to make way for members of the smaller party. His consolation prize was the post of minister of state for the marine.

His relationship with Haughey’s successor Albert Reynolds was poor. Noonan claimed that the new taoiseach was not fit to lead Fianna Fáil because of a willingness to drop Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution in advance of agreement on a united Ireland.

Sustained criticism of Reynolds lost him the party whip and he lost it again under Ahern when he abstained in a vote on the divorce referendum Bill. At the time, he claimed an “enormous majority’’ of Fianna Fáil members were opposed to divorce.

When he retired from politics, he became active in a number of community projects.

He is survived by his wife, Helen, sons John and Pat, and daughters Marie, Anne, Catherine and Carmel.