Noonan too lavish with his birthday presents


Drapier: Birthdays are marvellous things. You don't have to do anything. You manage to hold on for another year and are rewarded with presents and good wishes - unless, of course, you are the leader of Fine Gael. Unfortunately for Michael Noonan, his first birthday as Fine Gael leader has seen precious few good wishes. And as for the presents . . . the only ones on view are those he himself has resorted to handing out to all and sundry.

But what presents they are!

€100 million for Eircom shareholders. €200 million for taxi=drivers. €800 million for car buyers and anything at all that the Labour or Green parties should care to ask for, even a share of the top job. All this in just over one week.

One of Drapier's colleagues has a most comprehensive and well thumbed collection of cuttings from Michael's regional tour last year. It features firm promises of new hospitals or hospital wings to Waterford, Mullingar, Ennis, Tuam, Monaghan, Loughlinstown and strong hints of promises to come for more than a few other places.

The man whose Budget speeches were once replete with paeans of fiscal restraint now advocates the sort of free-spending ways that would have made Martin O'Donoghue blush.

The problem, from Michael's viewpoint, is that all he gets in return for this generosity is contempt. He wants to be the Tony Soprano of Irish politics, tough and nasty when you mess with him, but a golden-hearted guy underneath it all. You would just love to spend quality time with him and Carmella. You know the hospitality would be generous and the tokens of esteem lavish. The problem is that unlike the Sopranos, with Michael it's actually your own booty that is being recycled back to you.

Telenor (or was it ESAT?) under-the-counter cheques for staff and Jim Mitchell's secret friends all led to a ropy start for Michael. He struggled gamely with the active encouragement of the many media friends keen to seem him thrive. He even had Charlie Bird giving him almost immediate access to the news for whatever he might want to say. This was not out of love for him, just a desire to see some competition at the next election.

Such was this desire that the recent decline in his, and Fine Gael's, fortunes was not anticipated by commentators. The reasons for the low poll ratings seem to be twofold. First, the public perceive his primary purpose in life is to just attack Bertie Ahern. Second, they see his secondary purpose to be to promise them whatever he thinks they might want.

Michael Noonan is not a lucky general. In part this has its roots in the way he and Jim Mitchell unseated John Bruton. The wielding of daggers and the wearing of crowns do not go decorously together.

Drapier has heard some colleagues argue that Michael has not been well served by his lieutenants. Perhaps that is the case. Many of his front benchers remain anonymous, apart from solid performers like Alan Shatter and Gay Mitchell. He was certainly not well served by whoever he deputed to see the previews of No Tears. Their over-reaction to the portrayal of "the Minister" led Michael into a wholly unnecessary fiasco. A return to the humble apology of early last year, rather than tortured self-justification and sulking would have served him better.

The one thing in the recent MRBI poll that really hit home with Drapier was that Noonan and Quinn would be better off trying to copy Bertie Ahern than putting everything into trying to drag him down. Until they adopt a bit more of the consensus-politics approach of their adversary, they will be ignored by the public.

Drapier may have espied some vestigial evidence that Ruairí Quinn is learning this lesson, though. His thoughtful and impassioned speech in Thursday morning's Liam Lawlor censure motion caught the mood of the House. He avoided political point scoring and focused instead on the importance and honour of public service. It was much admired and contrasted starkly with that of the Fine Gael leader.

The Liam Lawlor motion certainly involved some high drama, but there was little or no debate. The only new element was the note of humility from Liam. Notwithstanding this, the view that he should go is now almost universal in Leinster House. Any last residues of sympathy have evaporated. We know from the recent poll that he is one Deputy who will certainly not be returning after the election - it's a pity that he seems to have lost his dignity as well as his career and freedom.

Noel O'Flynn's continuing outbursts on refugees are doing him and his party no good at all. They bear all the hallmarks of a panicked backbencher desperate to hold on to his seat. He would be better advised to take a few deep breaths and heed those fierce criticisms of his comments Drapier heard reported from the parliamentary party meeting.

This weekend is the first of the pre-election conferences. The PDs now have a spring in their steps for the first time in years. The polls show that the public view Mary Harney as an able and popular leader. In the past few weeks too they have seen some high-profile people affirming that the party has a future.

Perhaps the final trick, which they don't seem to have grasped yet, is the need to abandon the failed tactic of having public fights with their Government partners. It hasn't worked and it won't work. The backroom spinning done on the stadium issue struck most people as petty and very different from Mary Harney's public statements.

Drapier thinks that this week a little acorn has been planted that will grow to be a mighty oak. It seems that Drapier's betters in Government are going to give the go-ahead for a judicial inquiry into the gardaí in Donegal.

The priests have had their day at the bar of public opinion. The politicians are up there at the moment. Now it's the turn of the Garda and it will not be a pretty sight. In the long term, however, it will be a great public service if the great and the good are called to account. In each case only a few have transgressed. But in each case the system they operated in allowed their excess free rein.

After the priests, the politicians and the gardaí, Drapier supposes that will leave only the media. But then, as Michael Noonan has found out, that is not likely to happen soon.