A spinner who has mastered the conjurer’s art of misdirection
Noonan reputation belies a patchy record
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, speaking on the steps of the Department of Finance, following publication of the Quarterly National Accounts – “like all great spinners, Noonan has the knack of appearing completely unspun”. PHOTOGRAPH: ERIC LUKE
At the Fine Gael strategy meeting on Monday, Michael Noonan gave a master class in political communications. Combining intellectual ballast, whimsy, wit and folksiness (the always-handy hurling metaphor), his utterances were received by the media in the supine manner of a dog with paws aloft getting its belly scratched.
Noonan’s skills at finding the bon mot was summed up by this construct: “I’m not a martinet. I’m not ideological on these issues. I was just good at arithmetic when I was in primary school.”
The first sentence is true. The second sentence is not (of course he is ideological on these issues). The third may be true but not quite as true as him saying he was just good at English and drama when he was at primary school.
For it is not maths that has elevated Noonan’s reputation as Minister for Finance into the stratosphere.
Rather, it’s his political nous, his vast experience, a well-honed sense of timing and facility with language.
When you canvass TDs and Senators in Leinster House, friend and foe, they point to Noonan as the lodestar of the Coalition. The residual doubt that lingered about Enda Kenny as Taoiseach revolved around his poor grasp of economics. That responsibility was wholly delegated to Noonan, who has projected a cool and calm authority.
The strange thing is that when you strip out the semantics, a cold analysis of his
2½ years as Minister for Finance reveals a patchy record, with some undoubted successes, but also policy failures.
Yet the assessments of Noonan have been consistently laudatory – somehow amnesia sets in for the failures.
The biggest setback was the breakthrough that wasn’t on retrospective bank recapitalisation. The Government claimed a significant advance at an EU summit in June 2012, and Noonan, along with Brendan Howlin, quickly convened a press conference. It was an exercise in chutzpah and Noonan didn’t demur when figures of €60 billion were bandied about by reporters. The message was that at the very least €30 billion injected into the banks by Irish taxpayers was now in play.
The clear impression was that the deal was in the bag.
“What’s the minimum you will be looking for?” asked a journalist.
“It’s clear you’ve never been to the Fair of Glin or sold a calf,” Noonan riposted. “Sure, if I told them [the EU] the minimum, that’s what they would give me.”
Sublime stuff. Pity nobody checked later to see if any of it was real. It quickly fizzled out but with no political repercussion, no talk of U-turns or flip-flops.
The trick Noonan used was the magician’s one of misdirection.
When something does not work he ramps up the rhetoric on an alternative initiative. For over a year he used this strategy as he switched focus from bank recapitalisation to the promissory note.