Saturday 16 December 2017

The legacy: Noonan's sixth Budget may well be his final political act

Michael Noonan and his deputy Jim Mitchell after he won the leadership of Fine Gael in 2001. Photo: Tom Burke
Michael Noonan and his deputy Jim Mitchell after he won the leadership of Fine Gael in 2001. Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

IT IS Michael Noonan's sixth consecutive Budget - and very probably his last.

The Limerick battler is near the end of his 'second act' in politics and it has largely been one of redemption - as the Finance Minister guiding a nation out of recession.

His 42 years in elected politics have been characterised by highs, and remarkable lows.

On the evening of May 18, 2002, he resigned as Fine Gael leader after an electoral meltdown, with the loss of 23 Dáil seats leaving them at a low last experienced in 1948.

Noonan had won the leadership in February 2001 as part of the 'dream team' with the late Jim Mitchell, as they ousted former Taoiseach John Bruton.

However, he did not connect with voters and Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fáil had a burgeoning economic boom. Noonan vainly tried to introduce quality of life issues into the 2002 election campaign with the slogan 'Vision With Purpose'. He had also promised the biggest of all tax giveaways, worth €2bn.

However, his biggest campaign publicity came when he was struck in the face with a custard pie in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, on April 30, 2002. He took the defeat squarely on the chin.

"The responsibility is mine and mine alone," he said. Aged 59, with over 20 years in Dáil politics, it seemed that political oblivion beckoned.

Michael Noonan, now 73, comes from Loughill, Co. Limerick, on the Kerry border. He followed in his father's footsteps, qualifying from St Patrick's Teacher Training College in Dublin, and later doing a BA HDipEd which qualified him to teach secondary school.

Noonan's move to teach in Crescent College, on the edge of Limerick city, renewed his Fine Gael involvement. In 1974 he was elected to Limerick County Council and was soon tipped as a TD in the western part of the county.

Boundary changes saw him switch to the city constituency, where he won a Dáil seat in May 1981. He has retained it at 11 subsequent elections.

In 1969 he married primary teacher Florence Knightley and they had three sons and two daughters.

Limerick city politics is a cauldron which has produced a series of national household names from all parties. Noonan learned his trade here and was well able to hold his own.

He won national prominence in December 1982 when Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald appointed him Justice Minister and he managed the fallout from the Fianna Fáil phone-tapping scandals and other controversies.

This was at the height of the Troubles and the family home was 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 often took opposite sides in 30 years of Fine Gael's internal wars.

Kenny, as party Chief Whip, helped leader John Bruton defeat Noonan and other rebels in a February 1994 heave. However, when an extraordinary turn of events in December 1994 saw Bruton head a new Rainbow Government, he included both men in his Cabinet.

Noonan got the more senior job of Health Minister, and Kenny Minister for Tourism and Trade.

By the February 2001 heave, Kenny had again defended Bruton to the last, and also 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 held his Dáil seat by just dozens of votes, but took on the task of party rebuilding as leader in June 2002.

Michael Noonan's journey from the political margins in May 2002 back to the centre of power politics is testimony to his considerable ability. It was helped by bizarre happenings - like Fianna Fáil's total implosion, national bankruptcy, and yet another Fine Gael 'family war'. Part of Noonan's journey is also the poignant story of his wife Florence, afflicted by progressive Alzheimer's disease for the final 14 years of her life. Few beyond the family knew that even during the ill-starred 2002 campaign, he was already worried about his wife.

In October 2004, Kenny gave Noonan the biggest job in his gift as opposition leader, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. However, after the 2007 General Election, both Noonan and Kenny agreed he should remain on the backbenches for family reasons.

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 Finance Department. He got the job after another botched 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.

Six Budgets equals the modern record of Charlie McCreevy. Noonan was at his best in the first half of his first term, exuding confidence in leading Ireland towards a successful exit from the Troika.

He has struggled with ill health since, but also coped well under opposition pressure. Fine Gael were heavily reliant on his reputation in the February General Election.

That ill-fated campaign suffered many errors, and Noonan's pedigree as 'economic saviour' just did not come across to voters.

From today, Enda Kenny is on borrowed time as party leader and Taoiseach. Some feel Noonan should also depart, but he has done the State some service.

Irish Independent

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