Thursday 27 April 2017

'Give Noonan extra year in Finance in return for support'

Coveney supporters say minister's backing could be a 'game-changer'

Big boost: Simon Coveney seeking backing of Michael Noonan Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Big boost: Simon Coveney seeking backing of Michael Noonan Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Supporters of Housing Minister Simon Coveney believe he could increase his chances of becoming the next Fine Gael leader if he secured the public support of Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

Senior Fine Gael figures who are backing Mr Coveney said offering Mr Noonan another year in the Department of Finance could result in a public show of support from the minister.

It is also understood Mr Coveney has secured the support of Health Minister Simon Harris which is being viewed as a major coup in the leadership race. Mr Harris will not publicly back the Housing Minister until Taoiseach Enda Kenny finally steps down as Fine Gael leader, but Mr Coveney's supporters believe they can rely on his support during the campaign.

Kate O'Connell, a rising star in the party, is also understood to be now backing Mr Coveney and will play a key role in his leadership campaign. Her allegiance to the minister pits her against her Dublin Bay South constituency colleague Junior Finance Minister Eoghan Murphy, who is Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar's campaign manager.

Mr Noonan is still a popular figure among the party membership despite being embroiled in a number of controversies in the past year.

He has refused publicly to back any candidate in previous leadership elections as he believed it was inappropriate for a former leader to support another contender.

However, sources say a public show of support by Mr Noonan for Mr Coveney in the leadership contest would be a "game-changer".

"Since Michael hasn't publicly backed a leadership contender before it would be extremely influential - particularly with the membership.

"Most people suspect Mr Noonan will vote for Coveney but if he did it publicly it would be big," the source said.

Another supporter close to Mr Coveney's campaign team said the proposal had not been officially discussed but said it was an idea that should be given consideration due to Mr Noonan's standing in the party. "Simon and Michael haven't met but it is something that we could look at it."

A source close to the minister yesterday insisted Mr Coveney had held no formal discussions with Mr Noonan or his campaign team on such a proposal.

"It's not something he is for or against and it's not something he has thought about," the source said. "It's not factored into his plans at the moment."

Mr Noonan's experience in Brussels could be key in the early stages of Brexit negotiations over the coming years. However, leaving him in the Department of Finance would reduce the number of ministries available to the next Taoiseach in a Cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Noonan is also seen as part of the Fine Gael old guard and a close confidant of Mr Kenny, and some TDs believe he should not be part of the next Cabinet so as to make way for the next generation.

It has long been speculated that Mr Noonan would step down from Cabinet when Mr Kenny resigns as leader. However, neither politician has ever publicly indicated that this would be the case. Before the last General Election, Mr Noonan told constituents in Limerick that he wanted to oversee two more budgets should he be re-elected.

In the past year, Mr Noonan has been in the spotlight over his involvement in the controversial sale of Nama's Project Eagle loan book. He has denied he or his officials acted in anyway inappropriately during the sale process despite a finding by the Public Accounts Committee.

He has also faced questions over his knowledge of the Grace scandal, which saw a young girl abused while in foster care. Mr Noonan has vehemently denied he was involved in any wrongdoing.

It still remains unclear when Mr Kenny will step down as Fine Gael leader. He had promised to update his party following his St Patrick's Day visit to Washington last month. But on his return, he indicated he wanted to oversee the early stages of the Brexit negotiations.

Some in the party believe he will set out his intentions by the end of this month and clear the way for a leadership contest during the summer recess of the Dail.

Sunday Independent

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