Finance ministry saved Noonan’s career from ending in abject failure

Michael Noonan: very able operator, with a wily and wicked gift for communication

 

Ministers for finance do not tend to be judged in the same exposed way as taoisigh but Merrion Street has ended a fair few political careers over the years.

In marked contrast, this ministry has been the making of Michael Noonan who yesterday announced that he will step down as a Cabinet Minister when a new taoiseach assumes office in June. If he had not been Minister for Finance, his career would have ended in abject failure.

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan at The Irish Times Corporate Tax Summit, in the Westin Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan at The Irish Times Corporate Tax Summit, in the Westin Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

He was an undistinguished leader of Fine Gael and led the party into its worst ever election, when it ended up with 32 seats and its future existence was questioned. You can’t be in control of all factors and the timing of Noonan’s elevation to the leadership could not have come at a worse time. So his timing was unlucky just as Kenny’s timing in succeeding his was ultimately lucky.

There was never much doubt that Noonan was a very able operator, with a wily and wicked gift for communication.

His flat Limerick accent also distinguished him, as immortalised as “Limerick DJ, Mornin’ Noonan, Night” on the radio satire show Scrap Saturday.

He was promoted early to justice, where he exposed clandestine political phone tapping authorised by Fianna Fáil. In the 1990s, he was minister for health and suffered the fate of men before him. He was particularly criticised for his handling of Hepatitis C cases, particularly that of Bridget McCole, who faced legal threats on her death-bed. Noonan was straitened by legal advice but it was immensely damaging to him politically.

Michael Noonan, minister for justice in 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan
Michael Noonan, minister for justice in 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan

He finally emerged as party leader in 2001 during a ferocious feudal period in Fine Gael. It was followed in 2002 by electoral meltdown. Fine Gael lost 23 seats, returning only 32 deputies. Noonan resigned that night.

‘Broken’ man

“After the election he was very much a broken man. He retreated into himself,” a colleague remembered around that time.

Unknown beyond his closest circles, his wife, Florence (Flor), only in her early 50s, was going through the first stages of early onset Alzheimer’s disease at that time. He described in an emotional interview the difficulty the corrosive condition had on him and his family in the years before she died.

Michael Noonan, Fine Gael leader, in 2002. Photograph: PA/Haydn West
Michael Noonan, Fine Gael leader, in 2002. Photograph: PA/Haydn West

Politically, in 2010, luck turned his way. The challenge to Enda Kenny’s leadership was fronted by his finance spokesman Richard Bruton. When Kenny won the ensuing battle, Noonan was recalled out of nowhere.

It gave him a massive new jolt of energy to add to his obvious comfort with economics and finance (he had been party spokesman for a decade) and his undoubted political nous.

When Fianna Fáil collapsed, it was Noonan who was able to find the right phrase to sum it all up. On the eve of the Troika arriving, when then taoiseach Brian Cowen tried to avoid questions by giving convoluted answers, Noonan told him to stop talking in riddles and speak plain language.

Remarkable comeback

His appointment as minister in 2011 marked a remarkable comeback for the Limerick man. There were doubts about Kenny’s authority when it came to the State’s finances. Noonan, with his Cool Hand Luke style, gave a balming reassurance. While he was knowledgeable about his portfolio, he was not a specialist. His great skills were political – giving a sense of authority and calm and of being in control; knowing what could and could not have been achieved. Like Kenny, he did particularly well in Europe, winning respect from his EU counterparts.

Michael Noonan and Christine Lagarde, chief executive of the IMF in Dublin castle. Photograph: Alan Betson
Michael Noonan and Christine Lagarde, chief executive of the IMF in Dublin castle. Photograph: Alan Betson

There were a few hiccups along the way. He oversold what had been achieved on a few occasions, notably in the claim of a relaxing of interest on the Troika loan. When it did not materialise by the deadline he disingenuously claimed it was an “Olli Rehn deadline” not his. There was the political embarrassment of Apple tax windfall and the spotlight it shone on Irish tax arrangements.

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan with EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn. Photograph: Peter Cavanagh
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan with EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn. Photograph: Peter Cavanagh

He did win a big concession on the promissory note, though its benefits to the State has been disputed.

That said, he will be seen as the minister who was in charge when Ireland emerged from recession, exited a bailout situation, and saw an economy return to strong growth and low unemployment, despite lingering problems like homelessness and housing.

When Noonan became leader in 2001 he ruthlessly dropped Kenny from the front bench. Paradoxically, his own political career later became inextricably linked with his erstwhile foe. So much so that when Kenny stepped down, it was inevitable that Noonan, now almost 74, would follow suit.