The 'beast' returns
Eight years after leading FG into electoral disaster, the political heavyweight is back on top
Eight years after leading Fine Gael to its worst general election result in over 50 years, Michael Noonan has returned to the frontbench as finance spokesperson. This represents a remarkable comeback for one of the true heavyweights of Irish politics.
Three weeks ago, Enda Kenny was fighting for his political life. With an opinion poll showing that Labour had overtaken Fine Gael as the most popular political party for the first time, most of the Fine Gael frontbench was in open revolt against their leader.
With the then finance spokesperson, Richard Bruton, leading the attempt to oust him, Kenny desperately needed a credible alternative to sway wavering Fine Gael TDs, MEPs and senators.
That credible alternative was Michael Noonan. When questioned by dubious members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party as to who would replace the highly regarded Bruton in the key finance brief, Kenny's canvassers had a one-word reply: "Noonan."
First elected to the Dail in the 1981 General Election, the former school teacher has been at the forefront of Irish politics for almost 30 years. He was first appointed to the Cabinet in December 1982 after just 18 months in the Dail when Garret FitzGerald named him as justice minister.
The rookie minister experienced a baptism of fire. Barely a month into the job it emerged that his predecessor, the late Sean Doherty, had tapped the phones of two journalists. Noonan rose to challenge, sacking the then Garda Commissioner Patrick McLaughlin.
Noonan's assured handling of the 1983 bugging scandal established a reputation for competence and coolness under fire that has endured to the present day.
His success in the justice portfolio marked Noonan out as one of Fine Gael's big beasts. He was moved to the Department of Industry and Commerce in Garret FitzGerald's 1986 reshuffle and served as health minister in the 1994-97 Rainbow Coalition.
This was despite Noonan heading up a heave against the then Fine Gael leader, Richard Bruton's brother John, shortly before Fine Gael returned to government in December 1994.
After Fianna Fail and the PDs ousted the Rainbow in the 1997 General Election, Fine Gael was banished once more to the opposition benches and Noonan became the party's finance spokesperson, a position he had previously held between 1987 and 1990.
It was during his second stint as Fine Gael finance spokesperson that Noonan succeeded in inflicting by far the most serious wound suffered by the 1997-2002 Fianna Fail/PD coalition.
In his December 2000 Budget, the then finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, introduced individualisation for the taxation of couples where both parties worked. In his reply to McCreevy's Budget speech, Noonan demonstrated with forensic skill how the introduction of individualisation would leave families with stay-at-home wives significantly worse off.
What should have been a triumphant Budget for McCreevy, with cuts in income tax, company tax, VAT and fuel excise duty along with increased social welfare, was instead overshadowed by the individualisation controversy as outraged stay-at-home wives reacted with fury to the income-tax changes.
The sight of backbench Fianna Fail TDs, initially jubilant after McCreevy's Budget speech, becoming progressively more crestfallen as Noonan spelled out the implications of what McCreevy had just announced, remains one of the great Leinster House events of the TV era.
Noonan's success in ruining McCreevy's individualisation Budget paved the way for him to eventually become Fine Gael leader in February 2001, when former Taoiseach John Bruton was finally forced out. He defeated Enda Kenny in the party leadership election.
Noonan's subsequent decision not to appoint Kenny to his frontbench, reputedly telling the disappointed Kenny, "I have nothing for you", did nothing to heal the wounds opened up by John Bruton's removal.
Unfortunately for Noonan, he inherited a poisoned chalice. While it was claimed that the hard line adopted by the Department of Health during Noonan's term of office against legal claims brought by hepatitis C victims who had been infected by tainted blood, undermined his popularity with voters, the truth is that any Fine Gael leader was on a hiding to nothing going into the 2002 General Election.
With the economy booming, taxes being slashed and full employment, Fianna Fail came within two seats of an overall majority, while the PDs doubled their number of seats.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael lost 20 seats in its worst general election result since 1948. Among those who lost their seats were former leader Alan Dukes and former ministers Jim Mitchell and Nora Owen.
After such a disastrous result, there was no way that Noonan could remain as party leader. He resigned on the night of the election count and was quickly replaced by Enda Kenny.
Following such a crushing blow most politicians would have slunk off into retirement. Michael Noonan is made of sterner stuff. Instead he set about rebuilding his reputation. In October 2004 he was elected chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the powerful Dail financial watchdog, which is always chaired by an opposition TD.
He also returned to the Fine Gael frontbench as a spokesperson without portfolio.
When Kenny didn't reappoint Noonan to his frontbench after the 2007 General Election, it was widely assumed that the old rivalry between the two men had flared up again.
In fact, the real reason had nothing to do with high politics and everything to do with Noonan's tragic personal circumstances.
His wife Flor, who is still only 66, has suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past 12 years.
As her condition worsened, she needed round-the-clock care, meaning that Noonan no longer had the time to devote to frontbench politics.
He only disclosed the fact of his wife's illness in recent heart-rending interview on RTE's 'Frontline' TV programme.
For those who were previously only familiar with his 'hard man' public persona, the interview showed Noonan in a very different, much more human, light.
The uncaring image that had lingered ever since his time as health minister was finally exposed as the caricature it had always been.
And now he's back.
The strongest criticism of the previous Fine Gael frontbench had been the inability of most of its members to land a blow on their government counterparts.
This criticism didn't just apply to Enda Kenny, former finance spokesperson Richard Bruton also failed to seriously dent Brian Lenihan, despite his economics background.
The new Fine Gael frontbench, with Noonan in the finance brief and Alan Shatter, another TD first elected in 1981, as justice spokesperson, has a far more robust feel to it than its predecessor.
While Kenny will always struggle to best Taoiseach Brian Cowen in Dail set-pieces, Noonan and Shatter will be more than a match for their Fianna Fail counterparts, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and Justice Minister Dermot Ahern respectively.
With this week's spats over stag-hunting and dog-breeding providing further evidence that the Government will struggle to survive until the June 2012 General Election deadline, Noonan's jousts with Brian Lenihan will be closely watched.
If Noonan can neutralise the Government's most effective media and parliamentary performer then reports of Fine Gael's demise could yet prove to have been greatly exaggerated.
Having presided over the party's greatest electoral failure of recent times in 2002, it would be ironic if, a decade later, Noonan was to be the key to Fine Gael finally returning to power.