Morecambe and Wise of Irish politics are powerful figures in Government
Noonan and Howlin make good double act
Ministers Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan: while both have extensive ministerial experience, the roles for which both were best suited arrived in 2011 when they divided the finance portfolio into two. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
They make for an incongruous couple, as different in look, outlook and temperament as a comedy double act.
In a sense they are a Morecambe and Wise for the world of Irish politics – one doing constant gravitas, the other smattering it with a bit of levity and humour.
But make no mistake, with the exception of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin are the two most powerful figures in Irish politics.
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Indeed, it is the calm, knowing and calculating Noonan who has been seen as the anchor of the Government, the person who has done most to instil reassurance and confidence.
He has faults as a Minister and as a politician but there’s no one who compares when it comes to messaging.
The first thing to be said of both Ministers is that they are taoisigh manqués. Noonan was briefly leader of Fine Gael and led the party into a general election that was considered one of the biggest fiascos in Irish politics until the 2011 election took place. His leadership was dogged by a controversy that occurred when he was minister for health – his department’s poor handling of the case of the late Brigid McCole, a Donegal woman who contracted hepatitis C from contaminated blood products.
For his part, Howlin has been a contender for the leadership of Labour but could not command enough support from colleagues. He had the energy and commitment but not the common touch.
While both have extensive ministerial experience, the roles for which both were best suited arrived in 2011 when they divided the finance portfolio into two – Noonan taking the revenue, fiscal and international relations side, and Howlin taking charge of cuts and reforms. The reputations of both Ministers 2½ years later are high.
Howlin had a shaky start – a lost referendum and a clampdown on allowances that produced little or nothing. His difficulty has been presentation. He is perceived as more pomp than circumstance (in other words arrogant), so when he bellyflops there is always a big splash. But in the last year, despite the odds, he has pulled off some excellent wins – a functional inquiries Bill, a robust Freedom of Information Bill and whistleblowers legislation.
The Haddington Road agreement was also a major coup but he will have to show that the efficiencies and savings are real and not just paper transfers. The comprehensive review of spending has been a good innovation but the spending ceilings are not mandatory and so errant departments tend to break them. That said, he probably deserves more praise than he has got.
By contrast, it has been plain sailing for Noonan. He’s had some big wins: the promissory note, the liquidation of Anglo Irish Bank, and forging a good reputation for Ireland abroad. There have not been major innovations on the policy side during his watch – a lot of it is fulfilling a bailout programme that was preordained – but that’s not to denigrate what he has achieved.
There have been some failures but little has been heard of them. The deal on clawing back the money the State put back into recapitalisation was trumpeted, but has gone nowhere.
His efforts to get the banks to grasp the nettle on distressed mortgages has been disappointing, as have been his efforts to reduce executive pay in banks.