Wednesday 13 December 2017

Noonan's last stand... is this likely to be his last budget?

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Michael Noonan will stand up to speak in what could be his last ever budget. Kim Bielenberg charts the topsy-turvy career of the tough, streetwise politician - who has survived heaves, scandals, serious illness and numerous other setbacks - as he faces his final curtain

Old soldier: The former Fine Gael leader's career has had more ups and downs than a doctor's chart
Old soldier: The former Fine Gael leader's career has had more ups and downs than a doctor's chart

Michael Noonan once likened his career in politics to the zig-zag pattern on a chart at the end of a hospital bed. The graph of his fortunes has gone up and down, with spectacular spikes and troughs, over four decades.

Last December, he felt confident enough to say that his career was still on one of its upward curves, and had been for five years after his remarkable comeback. But is the graph heading downwards again?

Noonan, given credit for the economic recovery by supporters and denounced as a stern godfather of austerity by critics, said before this year's election that he hoped to serve until the middle of Fine Gael's second term in government. If this government were to survive a full term, that would have taken him to 2018.

Until recently, Noonan seemed impregnable, the old soldier who came back from political oblivion and fought off the challenges of economic disaster.

But more recently, there has been speculation that Noonan might go a lot sooner, and that Tuesday's Budget is likely to be his last as Finance Minister.

One former cabinet colleague expressed admiration for his role in recent years, but suggested his departure may not be far off.

"I believe the future of Michael Noonan is linked with the departure of the Taoiseach, and when Enda goes, his finance minister will go with him," the colleague said. "They are like a double act. A new Taoiseach will want new faces, and Noonan is unlikely to be part of the plan."

In recent days, Noonan could not conceal his irritation at reports about his health and any speculation that it might signal his political mortality.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan looks poised to subsidise first-time buyers in the Budget
Finance Minister Michael Noonan looks poised to subsidise first-time buyers in the Budget

Last month, he had to be treated in hospital for cellulitis, a bacterial infection that leads to swelling of the skin. Last Christmas he was admitted to hospital for a chest infection, and he has had radiotherapy for sarcoma cancer, as well as eye surgery. In late 2007, the minister underwent a heart bypass.

"There wouldn't be the same energy levels in him that there were five or six years ago," says one former colleague.

However, in the Dáil, during a discussion of childcare, Noonan angrily brushed aside media reports of his illnesses.

"'If you rely on newspapers, I wouldn't be here at all. If you read last Sunday's, I should be dead long ago."

Whatever about his health, Noonan has shown a resilience and capacity for political survival that is perhaps unrivalled in the modern era.

The novelist F Scott Fitzgerald once said there were no second acts in American lives. In case of Noonan, a lover of Shakespeare's plays, there have been at least five acts and the final drama may not have played itself out yet.

Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. Pic: Tom Burke
Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. Pic: Tom Burke

He had a spectacular rise as a young justice minister under Garret FitzGerald in the early 1980s after an early career as a schoolteacher. He has enjoyed political popularity and dismal failure; he has been at the centre of scandal, suffered a downfall of epic proportions and seems to have had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra.

In an interview last year with the Limerick Leader, he reflected on his topsy-turvy career.

"It's like the Kerry team, you know - if you go on long enough, there are several comebacks," he told the newspaper.

By the end of 2002, Noonan already seemed like yesterday's man in politics. He was destined to be remembered as the least successful leader in Fine Gael's history, having suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fáil.

The political lives of Noonan and the current Taoiseach are inextricably linked, and for much of their careers they were considered political adversaries who did not get on well.

In early 2001, Kenny lost out to Noonan in the battle to be Fine Gael leader, and in a move that was considered to be vindictive by party insiders, Noonan dropped him from the front bench.

According to some accounts, Kenny sulked for months, barely attending Leinster House, devoting all his energy to his Mayo constituency and firing off the odd salvo at Noonan's lacklustre leadership.

Noonan's short stint as Fine Gael leader is by common consent considered to have been catastrophic.

When he was elected leader, Fianna Fáil were cock-a-hoop and their backroom apparatchik PJ Mara was heard exclaiming "Happy days!''

At the 2002 general election, Ahern bounded around the country at a rate of knots, the leader of an apparently prosperous and optimistic nation. With his campaign coach dubbed the 'Baldybus', Noonan, by contrast, seemed like a throwback to an earlier era.

Journalists noted the slow, languid style of his progress across the country. Frustrated handlers waited as he lingered over his dinner in the middle of the day.

Perhaps Noonan's only telling soundbite came when he was hit in the face with a custard pie in Boyle, Co Roscommon. Without flinching, he told reporters, with admirable composure: "I usually have my dessert after my chips."

Observing Noonan's prudence and caution during his years as Finance Minister, it is hard to fathom that he could have lead a political campaign that was so inept back in 2002. His election manifesto included a proposal to compensate individuals who had lost money by investing in Eircom shares.

"It was one of the most bizarre election gimmicks of any functioning modern democracy," says Dublin City University politics professor Gary Murphy.

During this period, Noonan's career continued to be dogged by the after-effects of the hepatitis C scandal, when, as health minister in the 1990s, he was seen to deal insensitively with victims of botched blood transfusions, including Bridget McCole.

Writing in this paper in 2002, Justine McCarthy said of his attitude: "Michael Noonan does not lack honesty or sincerity. It is humanity that is his weak point."

Having lost the election and quit the leadership, Noonan then found himself in the wilderness on the backbenches, telling colleagues ruefully: "I'm in Siberia."

Although it was unknown to the public until much later, the life of the Fine Gaeler had also been thrown into turmoil by the grave illness of his wife Florence.

Before she died in 2012, Florence, a hugely popular figure around Noonan's home base in Limerick, suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and she required constant care.

The onset of the illness became apparent when, at the age of just 54, the former primary teacher began to forget things.

"She'd lose her keys, she'd forget to bring her handbag with her. She'd go shopping and she couldn't find the car in the car park," Noonan recalled in an interview with Pat Kenny that showed a more humane side to his personality.

Gradually, her condition worsened, requiring the constant attention of her family. She began to suffer from seizures that were similar to epileptic fits.

Noonan recalled the fright he got on the first day that she collapsed.

"The first morning I was showering her... she fell out through the shower door and I couldn't catch her and she was lying on the floor.

"She was unconscious for about three quarters of an hour while we were waiting for an ambulance to come. That happened three times over a two-month period. We just couldn't carry on."

The TD had to combine looking after her and salvaging the remnants of his flagging political career. It is hardly surprising that Noonan strongly considered packing it all in as a politician at one stage. He once said that if a general election had happened in 2006, he would have stood down.

But he hung in there, and, with a certain measure of political good fortune, the man lampooned as 'Baldy Noonan' clawed his way back to the top.

The US drama House of Cards has shown that political allies can come from the most unlikely quarters in the dog-eat-dog world of politics.

Noonan could hardly have expected that his saviour would be Enda Kenny, and the embattled Fine Gael leader could hardly have foreseen that the Limerick man would be his own rescuer.

In 2010, the old adversaries Kenny and Noonan effectively rescued each other's careers.

After Richard Bruton launched his failed coup against Kenny in 2010, the party chief needed a big beast to steady the tiller. In an act of shrewd magnanimity, the leader turned to Noonan as the old dog for the hard road.

Before the heave, Noonan had been considered to be in the anti-Kenny camp, and, according to some accounts, even encouraged the plotters. But having watched previous bloodletting in Fine Gael, he stood back from the fray until his opportunity came - and he supported the man destined to be Taoiseach.

Perhaps Noonan saw which way the wind was blowing and the weaknesses in the attempted coup, led by a group of young TDs perceived to be posh and dubbed "the cappuccino plotters".

Noonan was rewarded with the finance portfolio, and ultimately the job of Finance Minister.

The pair may not have become friends, but these elder statesmen formed an alliance that has lasted six years, and when he is in Government Buildings, Noonan is said to occasionally pop around the door of the Taoiseach's office for a chat.

Kenny not only relied on Noonan to steady the financial ship, but also to dampen down other controversies and win around his parliamentary party when things got hot and heavy.

The Taoiseach could afford to place his trust in him, because the older politician had no further ambitions to be leader.

Together with the Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin, Noonan was faced with implementing some of the toughest budgets in living memory - with swingeing tax increases, water charges and cuts to public services.

He also had to deal with the Troika, and try to reduce our crippling debt. In Brussels, he developed a rapport with his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble, and the pair were dubbed "bad cop and bad cop".

Noonan went against the grain in 2013, when he said Schäuble was a friend of Ireland who would do nothing damaging to the country.

Historians and economic commentators will long debate whether Noonan should have taken a tougher line with the Troika. The Finance Minister said in 2011 that he wanted to burn senior bondholders in our failed banks and it would have been better for the economy.

However, he received a phone call from the then president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, in March of that year telling him that a bomb would go off in Dublin if he took that action.

After the call from Trichet, Noonan felt that cutting out the bondholder was too huge a gamble.

"I thought the risk was too high. You have to make decisions like that as Minister," he later explained.

One senior colleague from that time says: "It's fair game to speculate about what would have happened if he had taken a different approach and burned bondholders.

"Could we have been worse off? The Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis didn't get very far with that approach - the punishment of the Greek people was much more severe."

After the long period of austerity, the hope of Fine Gael ministers and their Labour colleagues at the election was that they would be given credit for pulling Ireland back from the economic abyss. Unemployment had dropped and economic growth had returned.

Noonan's steady stewardship of the economy and the notion of keeping the recovery going were supposed to be the vote winner, but the electorate didn't buy it. And perhaps Noonan's stature has suffered as a result.

Brian Hayes, Fine Gael's director of elections who served as Minister of State in Noonan's department, recalls talking to him after the election.

"I spoke to him at the time of the defeat and he believed that, psychologically, if people lose a lot and they are told it will take them five years or get it back, they are very upset and angry about it. People appreciated the progress that had been made, but they were still angry as hell about the state of the country after the crash," says Hayes.

With his Churchillian girth, the lugubrious Noonan - the antithesis of the Blairite slick politician - may have suited the zeitgeist when we were in the depths of recession.

They may have appreciated his tombstone delivery of homespun folksy messages as a latter-day Minister for Hardship five years ago.

But some TDs wonder whether he is now the man to herald an optimistic bright new dawn.

Mornin', Noonan, Night - The CV

Name: Michael Noonan

Age: 73

Appearance: Portly, bald school principal. Before politics he was an English teacher - hence all the literary references in budget speeches.

Family: Was married to teacher Florence Knightly, who died in 2012. He has five adult children.

Career: First elected to the Dáil in 1981. Finance Minister: 2011 - present. Leader of Fine Gael: Feb 2001 - May 2002. Minister for Justice: 1982 - 1986, when he revealed a phone-tapping scandal in an earlier Fianna Fáil administration.

Minister for Health: 1994 -1999.

Also served as Minister for Industry, Commerce and Trade; Minister for Energy, and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

Unusual policy: Once proposed a ban on hoodies in shopping centres.

Best Noonan mimic: In his radio programme Scrap Saturday, Dermot Morgan lampooned Noonan mercilessly and helped to secure his status as a household name. He christened him the Limerick DJ "Mornin' Noonan Night''. The pair later became friends.

Hobbies: Reading Cormac McCarthy novels, Munster rugby and he used to like to take a dip in the River Shannon. He said at the time: "I swim away and I meet the odd dolphin."

Most likely to say: "The limited fiscal space means that that there is limited scope for extra public spending and tax cut."

Least likely to say: "It's time to spend, spend spend."

In his own words

‘Pearse Doherty’s piece of casuistry reminded me of Bart Simpson’s defence, “We didn’t do it, nobody told us, we weren’t there, it was the other people”.’

— to Pearse Doherty in 2011  on Sinn Féin’s support for the bank guarantee

‘I feel a bit like Mark Twain when he visited Niagara Falls. His companion asked him if he was impressed and he said: “Yes, I’m impressed all right, but I’d be more impressed if it flowed up the other way”.’

— on the 2000 Budget

‘Minister, what have you got against third children? The fourth child won’t be cut, the fifth child won’t be cut, the 16th child won’t be cut... did some third child beat you up coming home from school as a young fella?’

— on the cut in benefit for third children in 2010

‘Somebody once said a camel was a horse designed by a committee and this was a camel of a budget with bumps and lumps on it.’

— on the 2000 Budget

‘Why are Fianna Fáil backbenchers like snails? They are slow and crawly, leave a trail and pull in their horns when there’s trouble — a little bit slimy on occasions.’

— in the Dáil in 2000

‘We have a new phenomenon in the Irish health service, imported from Disneyland, where people now queue to join the queue.’

— on our hospital system

‘I just don’t like the fella….Vincent Browne could be running a programme all night from the Statue of Liberty and Michael Noonan will not go on.’

 — on the TV3 broadcaster

‘If you rely on newspapers. I wouldn’t be here at all. If you read last Sunday’s (papers) I should be dead long ago.’

— on newspaper reports

about his health

‘We didn’t win the All-Ireland but we beat Tipperary.’ 

— on reaching a deal with the EU/IMF/ECB Troika in 2012 on the €3.1bn Anglo promissory note debt

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