He's back -- and Noonan is setting the agenda
Fine Gael's finance spokesman tells Daniel McConnell the public sector has to be cut down to size to save more than €3bn
MICHAEL Noonan is no sheep, we all know that. He is his own man and is willing to speak his mind, even if it isn't party policy.
Over the course of two hours on Friday in his native Limerick, I listened as Noonan -- the man most likely to be the next Finance Minister -- laid out his vision for Ireland. Included in that vision is why €3bn in cuts isn't enough; how real poverty has re-emerged in Ireland; why 40,000 public sector jobs should be cut; why further cuts in social welfare are needed; why the bank guarantee and the nationalisation of Anglo were wrong; and why he described Dermot Ahern as a "nasty little man".
Three months ago, Michael Noonan cut a rather solemn figure on the backbenches of Fine Gael. Out of favour and running out the clock, it seemed. Then came his startling revelation about his wife Flor's advanced Alzheimer's disease, which led to her being placed into full-time care.
"In 2007, I asked Enda not to put me on the frontbench, because I had too many duties at home. Neither of us revealed that at the time, so there was speculation that he
had left me off, like there was bitterness. It wasn't like that.
"But since my wife has gone into a nursing home, I have been able to get more active again. I didn't expect to get back onto the frontbench, but after the heave I was asked to do the finance job."
Even though his wife's mobility is all but gone, the mere mention of her name causes him to smile. "She's getting the best of care now," he said.
When asked what he brings to the table in terms of the finance job, Noonan, 67, said he wanted to be minister, but not for any personal advancement, which matters little to him at this stage.
"I would like to get the job, I have been the bridesmaid now a long time. I was opposition finance spokesman against Bertie Ahern, Ray MacSharry and Charlie McCreevy, so I have marked them all at various Budgets.
"Over the years, you learn a lot. I suppose I bring a certain amount of wisdom to it. But I lack all personal ambitions at this stage. Very often ambition gets in the way.
"I am very happy to be a main player within Fine Gael again. I'd certainly like to be a cabinet minister but I'm not gagging for it. I'd like to get the chance and I'd like to do a good job, but it is no longer about the medals and honours any more, I'm not interested in that."
On policy, Noonan also pulls no punches. Contrary to Fine Gael's stated position, he said categorically that the bank guarantee was wrong and nationalising Anglo should never have happened.
"Oh yeah, nationalisation was the wrong decision and the guarantee in September 2008 was the wrong decision.
"When he [ Lenihan] nationalised Anglo, he didn't have the full information. The banks hoodwinked him.
"January 2009 was the time for an Anglo wind down and he had an opportunity that time. It was a private bank, there was an opportunity not to pay subordinated debt.
"The hit to the taxpayer wouldn't be there because there was no liability. The creditors would have taken it over and they would have wound it down to their best advantage. They would have taken the hit."
He believes the stated target for Budget cuts of €3bn is the minimum that could and should come out this year. However, he recommends that the reduction be even higher.
"There has to be a restrictive Budget, the Government has no choice, €3bn is a good starting figure but if they could politically -- without impacting on the most vulnerable in society -- they should go further this time."
Noonan said there is no more scope to cut public sector pay, so the only way to get savings is by cutting numbers. He wants 40,000 gone by 2015.
"I thought the Croke Park deal was interesting, but I have a problem with it as well. If you take it at face value and you are looking for savings in the public sector, between now and 2015, the ESRI said there will be 40,000 less public servants, without compulsory redundancies. I'd like to see that delivered and a guarantee that they won't fill the posts again.
"You can only control payroll by cutting pay or cutting numbers. Now the civil servants have already taken pay cuts of between 15-20 per cent, depending on who you believe. That is an awful lot of a cut there and there is no scope for further cuts. and I wouldn't favour any further cuts, but there is room in the numbers," he added.
He said the recession had seen a 16.5 per cent drop in our wealth, compared to the five per cent hit in the UK and three per cent in the US, adding that the recession would leave a "permanent scar" on Ireland.
So, where would he get his €3bn in savings? He said the
emphasis should be on cutting current spending ahead of capital, which he wants to prioritise. Further savings should come from social welfare.
However, any cuts must be fair and protect the most needy, because it is from this area that he is witnessing the return of real and chronic poverty in Ireland. He would leave child benefit alone. "I think there will have to be savings in social welfare numbers. My principles are that cuts must be fair and the most vulnerable must be protected. I see in my area that poverty, real poverty, is re-emerging in Ireland and the people that are hardest hit are the ones with larger families, so I wouldn't go after child benefit.
"I know there is colossal waste across the social welfare system. I think a serious minister who knows the job could make serious savings there."
Last week, Minister Eamon Ryan said he was not in favour of selling semi-states that are performing, comments which Noonan dismissed as ridiculous.
"Yes, I favour privatisation. I don't see any point in holding on to state companies in monopoly situations if the private sector can do it as efficiently or more efficiently -- particularly when we are stretched as we are.
"However, I wouldn't want to sell them off at the bottom of the market and we are at the bottom at the moment. But yes, I do favour privatisation."
He also went further, saying Dublin Airport should be opened up to competition.
"Competition is needed at Dublin Airport and I don't think Cork, Shannon or Belfast are the real competition.You need competition at the airport and a second terminal building run by somebody else gives you that.
"I used to fly in and out of New York JFK quite a lot and you see what they have there. Different airlines operate different terminals and they are leased by the New York Port Authority -- and that's in my view how Dublin should be."
Only a few days before we met, he had raised a few eyebrows when he referred to Justice Minister Dermot Ahern on RTE radio as a "nasty little man".
Explaining his typically strong put down, he said: "What happened was that he is quite combative in his techniques. I was trying to genuinely discuss policy.
"But five times he made it personal on various points, so after that I felt I was entitled to one swing. Some people felt I went too far, maybe I did."
He also came to the defence of Alan Dukes, who he described as a patriot.
"I think he is very hard working and he is very able. I think actually he is patriotic. He proved that the time of the Tallaght Strategy and he's gone in there and he has adopted the same approach.
"He is willing to take the criticism to get the job done. He doesn't need this, he had a lot of irons in the fire, I would have a lot of time for him."
In terms of marking Brian Lenihan, he said it will be difficult because "I like him and respect him". By contrast, he says Brian Cowen's credibility is ruined and cannot be restored.
But he finished with a note of sympathy for his constituency rival Willie O'Dea, for whom he said he has real sympathy after the Greens insisted on their pound of flesh.
"If it was a single-party Fianna Fail government, Willie O'Dea would still be in Cabinet, no doubt, so I do have some sympathy for him."