Tuesday 27 September 2016

Noonan's credibility will be crucial for Fine Gael

Published 05/10/2015 | 02:30

Noonan’s last big electoral role ended in calamity
Noonan’s last big electoral role ended in calamity

The photographic display of Ireland's Finance Ministers in the department's Merrion Street HQ offers a major slice of history. Their ordering may also tell us something about our future.

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I'm talking about the spacious ground floor room, in those well-appointed offices, close to Government Buildings in Dublin, where the minister of the day frequently meets with visitors. You can start with Eoin Mac Neill, the great Celtic scholar from Co Antrim, who headed the almost fictional Finance Department of the First Dáil in January 1919. And then the eye easily moves clockwise, taking in the photographs of those stolid men - not a woman among them - who have dutifully minded the national coffers ever since then.

Perhaps appropriately, in the corner, is the unmistakably bold countenance of one Charles J Haughey, who held the office from 1966 until 1970, when he was sacked amid the Arms Trial controversy. People of a certain age may remember those black and white television images in November 1967, when Haughey announced that Ireland had no option but to follow Britain's devaluation of the pound. If not, try an online search to see CJH explain Ireland's no-choice position in monetary union with our bigger neighbours.

Moving on in sequence, you soon come to the tragic image of the late Brian Lenihan, who held office through all the turmoil from May 2008 until March 2011. The most striking issue after Lenihan's photo, is that there is only one photographic piece of wall-space left - presumably for the current incumbent, Michael Noonan, who has held office from March 2011 to the present.

The Limerick battler told this newspaper on Saturday that he wants another two years in office, in a renewed Fine Gael-led government. The 72-year-old former teacher argued that he wants to do that so he can bed down the economic recovery, leading investment rather than cutbacks.

So, the mandarins may have the time to consider how they will re-configure this photographic display without causing offence or opening up an unseemly controversy. It is another tricky nexus where politics and history overlap.

We can probably rely upon the "permanent government" to find a solution. But more immediately, it is yet another reminder of the pivotal role Michael Noonan will play in the upcoming general election.

Those of you who like your recent history as much as your politics will enjoy the attendant irony: the last time Noonan was given a pivotal electoral role, it ended in calamity for himself and his party.

In February 2001, a maximum 16 months away from the coming general election, Noonan had combined with the late Jim Mitchell to drive John Bruton out of the party leadership. Bruton had been a very credible Taoiseach in the years 1994-97, and the party leadership coup proved a huge error.

Noonan's general election slogan, "Vision with Purpose", is long forgotten. The abiding image from that May 2002 election campaign was of Noonan being hit in the face with a custard pie, ironically by a woman protesting against the lack of government support for home births.

Two weeks into the campaign, the former Fine Gael minister turned bookie Ivan Yates had already slashed the odds on Bertie Ahern returning as Taoiseach from 5-1 to a money-on 1-25. Noonan's Fine Gael lost 22 seats, becoming the first ever opposition party to be "voted out of office". As the Limerick man quit the leadership, to be replaced by current Taoiseach Enda Kenny, there were genuine doubts about whether Fine Gael could continue in existence.

Enda Kenny's slow rebuilding of his party's fortunes in the ensuing decade did not really include any major input from Michael Noonan. Well, not until the extraordinary events of June 2010, when Kenny easily defeated a rather ham-fisted attempted leadership coup. Noonan had appeared to stand on the sidelines for that internal gut struggle - but the Kenny win, and the resultant personnel reshuffle, brought the Limerick man back to the centre of things as the party's finance spokesman.

Noonan did very well in his new role and prospered even more as a back-to-wall Finance Minister from March 2011 onwards. He accorded well with the Public Expenditure Minister, Brendan Howlin of Labour, in what was really a job-share at the "Ministry of Hardship".

The pair have notably and commendably managed to avoid any sign of dissension or division, at least in part due to their combined haul of 62 years in Dáil experience. They have avoided dropping the ball in four Budgets and expertly managed the nation's expectations at a time when national morale was at rock bottom.

Enda Kenny took some limited flak for failing to deliver on what he styled an EU promise for retrospective help on Irish bank debt. But Noonan got kudos for debt restructuring which eased the burden, as he also deftly steered the Government away from reliance upon the EU promise which will never be fulfilled.

It has to be said that more recently Michael Noonan has not looked as self-assured as previously. At times, he struggled over details of the Siteserv sale controversy and looked under pressure over Nama's operations in the North.

But Fine Gael election hopefuls can depend that these are not likely to be big issues when compared with tax and spending and their implications for individual voters. It is here that they will rely upon Michael Noonan to manage much-raised national expectations.

It is the point where we can reduce the election campaign to one central question: Can Noonan convince voters that they have got the best available deal?

Irish Independent

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