Are you right there, Michael?
Published 19/05/2013 | 05:00
John Downing on the remarkable rollercoaster career of Finance Minister Noonan as he approaches his 70th birthday next week
Slowly, Michael Noonan turned and asked the other people in the car: "How could the Fine Gael party have chosen such an ugly man to lead them?" It was mid-May 2002 and he had spent hours each day for the previous fortnight gazing at his own image on the 'election battle bus' travelling in front of his campaign car. Noonan was approaching his 59th birthday and headed for political oblivion as the party he led was days away from electoral meltdown.
But nobody – least of all himself – could have believed that less than nine years later he would be back at the heart of Irish public life carrying the hopes of a fretful bankrupt nation as Finance Minister. Now, just days from his 70th birthday, this widowed father of five adult children, and grandfather of 10, has the confidence of a man who feels he has little left to prove.
Ten days ago, easily fielding questions on EU matters at the Oireachtas Finance Committee, he had no compunction in saying: "Ah . . . I've lost my place in my notes, now." Then he joked about how his 'embarrassment threshold' had shifted over the years.
The journey from political margins back to the centre of power politics is testimony to Noonan's considerable ability. It is also replete with bizarre happenings, 'what-if?' style political musings – not least the total implosion of long-time opponents in Fianna Fáil.
But at the centre of Noonan's journey is also the poignant story of his beautiful wife, Flor, afflicted by progressive Alzheimer's disease for the final 14 years of her life. Few beyond the family knew that even during that ill-starred 2002 campaign, he was already worried about his wife's eroding mental capacities.
Florence Knightley came originally from Castlemaine in Co Kerry and they met while both were primary school teachers in Dublin. The early photographs of the young couple show how easily he must have been smitten by this elegant beauty.
For most of their 43-year marriage they lived in a modest semi-detached home in Dooradoyle, on the southern fringe of Limerick city, and both taught in schools near their homes. Their three sons and two daughters got their education at these schools.
Michael Noonan was himself the son of a schoolmaster, originally from Loughill, on the bank of the Shannon Estuary, just on the Limerick side of the border with Kerry. All of his political life has been in Limerick city, a tough cauldron of frequent polemic, where he has won 10 Dáil elections.
Noonan is not lacking in the quick putdowns which are a useful survival skill. Once, when upbraided by a supporter about his poor vote in comparison with that of the late Jim Kemmy, he delivered a one-sentence treatise on Irish political culture: "I represent Limerick in Dáil Éireann – Jim Kemmy represents Dáil Éireann in Limerick."
He won national prominence in December 1982 when Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald appointed him Justice Minister. He managed the fallout from Fianna Fáil phone-tapping scandals and other controversies, including a bruising industrial relations battle with the Prison Officers' Association.
This was at the height of the Northern Troubles and the family home became a mini-fortress surrounded by gardaí around the clock. He was later Industry Minister and in the 1995-97 Rainbow Coalition he served as Health Minister, a job which was to give him much subsequent political grief.
Noonan and Enda Kenny were more often on opposite sides in 30 years of Fine Gael's internal wars, starting with Noonan voicing leadership ambitions as early as 1993.
Kenny, as party chief whip, helped party leader John Bruton defeat Noonan and other rebels in a February 1994 heave. But, when an extraordinary turn of events in December of that same year saw Bruton head a new Rainbow Government, he included both men in his government team. Noonan got the more senior job of Health Minister to Kenny's appointment at the Department of Tourism and Trade.
Noonan finally ousted Bruton as FG leader in February 2001. Kenny had defended his boss to the last and then directly challenged Noonan for the leadership, losing by 28 votes to 44. Noonan then astounded many by not including Kenny in his frontbench opposition team.
Kenny sulkily dedicated himself to Mayo constituency matters while Noonan began his ill-starred effort to oust Fianna Fáil's Bertie Ahern. But from the very start, FG and Noonan could not connect with an Irish electorate obsessed with money and property.
Noonan tried to talk about quality of life and then tried to out-bribe Fianna Fáil who had the upper hand throughout. Kenny happily stayed far away, taking an occasional public pot-shot at party efforts under Noonan.
One of the few lively moments in a dull 2002 campaign delivered an iconic photograph of Noonan being struck in the face with a custard pie in Boyle, Co Roscommon.
Even before full count results, Noonan quit as leader on Saturday evening, May 18, 2002, after just 15 months' leadership. The party had lost 23 seats which left question marks over its very existence.
Noonan held his Dáil seat handsomely. Kenny only survived by a handful of votes but went on to become Fine Gael's new leader talking about a revival that would take him nine more years of sheer slog to achieve.
In October 2004, Kenny gave Noonan the biggest plum in his gift as opposition leader by making him chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. But on the home front Noonan's worries intensified about his wife Flor whose dementia was worsening.
After the 2007 General Election, Noonan quietly explained his circumstances to Kenny and both agreed he should remain on the backbenches. By now his home circumstances were known in political circles but the Irish public were astonished on May 31, 2010, to see Noonan on RTÉ television telling the story of Flor and her progressive dementia.
"Maybe once a month she'd smile at you," he said, explaining how she rarely knew who he was. Florence Noonan died in February 2012, aged 68, and was mourned by her husband, family and wide circle of friends.
By then, Noonan was almost one full year in charge at the Department of Finance. He got the job via another hectic political melodrama of a botched leadership heave against Kenny played out over five days in June 2010.
Among Kenny's many advantages in that contest was the quiet support of Noonan. And Noonan's reward was to become Fine Gael's finance spokesman, a job he had done many times against Fianna Fáil heavyweights Ray MacSharry, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy.
Both Kenny and Noonan were now finally on the same side and soon would be facing the same challenge of trying to fix a very broken economy. Over 14 months as Finance Minister, Noonan has withstood the huge pressures of the job and never shrunk from telling the public that things would be very tough.
He has repeatedly said Ireland's economic predicament can be summarised in one word – "debt". And the road towards recovery has been at least as hard as he predicted.
But while the Irish economy and its prospects are better rated overseas than at home, Noonan enjoys a strong reputation on both fronts. He is highly rated by his EU ministerial colleagues and others such as International Monetary Fund boss, Christine Lagarde, and Economic Commissioner, Olli Rehn.
Colleagues at Leinster House admit that Noonan has shown signs of tiring in recent months and believe this is very likely his last Dáil term. "When faced with yet another early flight to Brussels he privately admits to far rather staying at home to enjoy a few quiet pints with friends," one FG TD says. He is a regular each week at the Dáil bar where backbenchers know they can steal a quiet word and directly seek a favour.
But there is no doubt that Noonan remains central to Kenny and his Government. One veteran Fine Gael TD sums up this view of life. Put it this way: at party branch meetings throughout the country, if you mention James Reilly or Phil Hogan you can provoke a serious row.
"But mention Michael Noonan and you are on a winner. He is seen as the one who has steadied the ship and kept it going forwards. He is Kenny's cornerstone."