Wednesday 28 September 2016

Minister wrong to believe political foot-dragging could stave off inquiry

Published 15/09/2016 | 02:30

Michael Noonan has long opposed a full-blown inquiry into Nama and Project Eagle Picture: Damien Eagers
Michael Noonan has long opposed a full-blown inquiry into Nama and Project Eagle Picture: Damien Eagers

It has not been a good fortnight for Michael Noonan. In fact it seems to be a long, long time ago since he was being hailed as the saviour of the Irish nation whose fortitude and folksy wisdom helped us all out of the slough of the bailout and onward towards better times.

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Mr Noonan was to have been the cornerstone of the Fine Gael campaign to win back power. Given that the party actually lost one-third of its TDs last February, it is reasonable to conclude that not enough of the voters rated him such a saviour after all.

The veteran Limerick politician had played his "second coming" in national politics quite brilliantly and redeemed a reputation which might otherwise have been largely recorded as having led his Fine Gael party to electoral meltdown in the May 2002 General Election.

But much of that comeback was driven by not having to take any ownership of the mess he was clearing up. It was, he reminded us from time to time, the work of the "other crowd".

Well, he has come back from the summer holidays with a very rocky start to a new political term. First, the EU Commission's legal ruling on August 30 left Ireland as piggy in the middle in a row over €13bn in back taxes for the Apple conglomerate.

Mr Noonan could have not "owned" the Apple conundrum as it arises from things on the "other crowd's" watch. But he did not look great when the Coalition's initial response was sluggish and disunited. Critics claimed he was "asleep at the wheel" and not having played his part in developing a "whole-of-Government response".

Now there is a pretty damning report by the taxpayers' spending watchdog, the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG), into the workings of the National Asset Management Agency, a body he has long staunchly defended.

Mr Noonan has long opposed a full-blown inquiry into Nama and Project Eagle which happened on his watch. As late as this Monday he was talking about allowing the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to deal with Project Eagle first.

The Finance Minister grudgingly said he was "not ruling out" an inquiry - but let's just first see what the PAC makes of it all. The surprising thing is that by his own admission Mr Noonan has had the C&AG report since early last month.

Yet he still seemed to believe that political foot-dragging could stave off a full inquiry into Nama. Lurid accusations in a BBC 'Spotlight' programme, a strong reaction from Fianna Fáil, and a similar response from the Independent Alliance, made Mr Noonan's response untenable.

Now he faces big questions on what he knew of conflicts of interest in this process; and how the bidding process was conducted. The Opposition are asking why he did not shout 'Stop' in 2013 or 2014. Ironically, he may get to answer these questions at the PAC.

Irish Independent

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