Thursday 25 December 2014

We're not out of woods yet but praise is deserved

Published 09/01/2014 | 02:30

European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn listens to Ireland's Finance Minister Michael Noonan (R) during a eurozone finance ministers meeting in Brussels December 17, 2013. Euro zone finance ministers face difficult talks over their plans for a banking union on Tuesday, including how to pay for the winding up of troubled banks, a deeply divisive issue on which Germany has dug in its heels. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS)
European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn listens to Ireland's Finance Minister Michael Noonan (R) during a eurozone finance ministers meeting in Brussels

IS Michael Noonan the best finance minister in Europe? Probably. 'The Banker' gave him the gong because the magazine wants to reward government leaders who endure unpopularity for the long-term good of their country rather than buying popularity.

While Mr Noonan has certainly avoided splashing the cash, its worth remembering he was under troika's orders. Much of Mr Noonan's success is down to the fact that he has steadfastly implemented a programme devised by his predecessors and the International Monetary Fund.

We will learn in the months ahead whether he has the grit to resist foolish spending, now that he is no longer under the cosh.

Despite this caveat, there is little doubt that Mr Noonan has performed well in a post that requires the holder to be one-half showman and one-half finance expert.

The former English and economics teacher is undoubtedly a great performer who has explained his policies succinctly to voters, while deploying his legendary wit to forge alliances among his eurozone counterparts.

A much quoted essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin once divided people into hedgehogs who only know one big thing and foxes who know many small things. Mr Noonan is a hedgehog; his entire focus has been on reassuring the international community about Ireland's bone fides and restoring our reputation overseas.

The Limerick man grasped early on that our country was paralysed by its reputation as another Greece and we would not be able to move on until our reputation was improved considerably.

After a few false starts, he and Taoiseach Enda Kenny stumbled upon a simple narrative about plucky Irish comeback kids. It is illogical at times; how, for example, can we beg for debt relief when we keeping crowing about our success?

But it works at many levels and acknowledges that simple stories are the best ones.

The fact that we could borrow at low rates this week was a tribute to this narrative's power.

Mr Noonan's nomination as best finance minister in Europe is another result of the same policy.

To be sure, there are still problems here. Mr Noonan has presided over a country where the young are exported in record numbers, the middle-aged robbed of their pensions and the elderly tricked with new regulations to take away benefits by stealth.

He has tolerated organisations such as the National Asset Management Agency despite his criticism in opposition. He has allowed the rates paid by businesses to reach ruinous levels, while failing completely to understand that Dublin's residential property market is dangerously out of control.

These are serious flaws but nobody, and especially no finance minister, is a prophet in his own land.

Europe's other leaders are guilty of equally foolish mistakes. Mr Noonan deserves his gong.

Irish Independent

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