Monday 22 July 2019

'By this stage, I could write the catechism of budgets'

Michael Noonan tells Thomas Molloy that endless dreary days in the Dail taught him how to understand the country's finances

Illustration: Jon Berkeley
Illustration: Jon Berkeley

Thomas Molloy

IN just over two weeks, Michael Noonan will deliver his fourth Budget.

Today, he is looking remarkably calm as he relaxes on a beige two-seater sofa in his vast office with 20-feet-high ceilings in the corner of the Department of Finance, a battered brown attache case leaning against his desk.

The newspapers are full of stories about what he will say but we've agreed to skip the Budget speculation and try and work out what makes the west Limerick man tick.

He was voted best finance minister in Europe earlier this year by 'The Banker 'magaizne and is undoubtedly one of the most popular members of the Cabinet, so it is easy to forget how close Noonan was to becoming a footnote in the history of the present Government.

He owes his job and present status to Richard Bruton's failed coup against Enda Kenny in 2010, when the party was in opposition but preparing for power. Bruton had been finance spokesman but was sacked followed the putsch.

"I suppose really what happened was the fortunes of politics," Noonan reminiscences. "Enda won the contest. Richard was finance spokesman. He could hardly keep him on as finance spokesman with the way the relationship had gone."

Even then, Kenny turned to Noonan's younger constituency colleague Kieran O'Donnell and named him party finance spokesman until O'Donnell also defected to the Bruton camp two days later. It was only then that Kenny named Noonan as Fine Gael's finance spokesman.

"When it came to forming a front bench after the heave, there was hardly anybody around who could do it, we were so close to an election. There was hardly anyone with the technical skills bar myself."

Several party bosses whispered at the time that the job would have gone to George Lee had the broadcaster-turned TD not decided to return to Montrose. If true, one of the most successful finance ministers in the history of the State was his leader's fourth choice.

In a week when controversy rages over Enda Kenny's ability to fill Senate seats and cabinet posts, it is worth remembering that Kenny's best and most significant appointment was more than a bit of a fluke.

Today, Noonan insists that the accidental nature of the appointment did not leave him with a chip on his shoulder but says it did make him independent of the leadership.

"I was very independent. Obviously, when you are appointed like that, you are very independent."

Noonan was a fluke for two reasons: he owes his appointment to the miscalculations of others. And he owes his vast experience of financial matters to Fine Gael's inability to win elections throughout the last decade.

This meant he has had one of the longest apprenticeships of any finance minister, even if most people remembered him for his unsuccessful stint as party leader or his period in the Department of Health.

"I had marked Fianna Fail's Ray MacSharry, I had marked Reynolds. I had marked Bertie and McCreevy. I had replied to all their budgets. So I could write the catechism of budgets. Every issue up and down. Over and back," he smiles.

"I need very little briefing even at present because I was over the issues so often. I spent so many weary days in the Dail going over the Finance Bill.

"People would see me on Budget Day and think that was a very witty speech. But the stuff you do in committee is under the radar. Days and days and days and days of finance bills," he says with a tired note in that characteristic west Limerick drawl of his. In a fast-changing world, ministers need to carry a lot around in their heads.

"There is very little thinking time. So you need ministers who are sure in their own heads. Because if there is any uncertainty, the response time can be so fast," he says.

That helped him on the night of the bank guarantee in October 2010, even if Fine Gael did end up voting in favour of the measure.

"The other thing was that I got it right on the bank (guarantee) issue. I asked whether it was a liquidity or solvency problem. That wasn't because I got any tip off. It was because I read the bill," he says.

While not accusing his predecessor, the late Brian Lenihan, of misleading the Dail, Noonan clearly believes that the bill to guarantee the banks contained a tacit admission that the previous administration knew that the country's banks were not just suffering a temporary liquidity problem but also a much more serious solvency problem.

How many TDs read a finance bill?

"Most of the fellows who are serious. which I suppose is two-thirds of them," he answers, casually dismissing around a third of the Dail as dunces.

The son of a primary school teacher and part-time farmer, Noonan wasn't always interested in finance or even Fine Gael. "Was I embedded in the surface folklore of the party? I wasn't. I wasn't reared that way."

He grew up in a small village close to Foynes on the Shannon estuary and earned his first shillings running a tuck shop in an Irish-speaking holiday camp. The family were constitutional nationalists and he touches on his lack of Fine Gael family connections several times in the course of the interview.

After studying primary school teaching in Drumcondra, Noonan went on to study economics and English at night under, among others, Garret FitzGerald, in UCD to train as a secondary school teacher. He portrays himself as a serious student, reading widely. Even today, his tastes are wide. "I read an awful lot. On holidays I read Antonia Fraser's biography of Charles II and it was the best introduction to the Scottish problem." But it is not always history. He also reads thrillers to unwind. British author Lee Child is a favourite.

Asked why he was so studious, he adds he also had a "Honda 50...and a girlfriend."

Today, he seems largely untouched by the controversies that raged through the dismal science during the 1960s and 1970s. He preferred to see economics as a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail matter.

The way Noonan tells it, his early years in politics were wrapped up in party issues, with his financial awakening coming much later. He classifies himself as left-leaning in a conservative society during his years working in Limerick as a county councillor and young teacher in the Crescent College, a Jesuit comprehensive school that was created in the 1960s and which he joined for idealistic reasons.

Noonan entered the Dail hoping to make an impact in education but never became Education Minister - strangely for a man who has held high office in several portfolios.

"The conflict between Garret and Haughey was the pivot around which everything turned," he says. The country's finances "wasn't my primary concern...I was more interested in social policy at the time. Particularly education but also health."

A stint in the Department of Justice came as FitzGerald negotiated the Anglo Irish Agreement but was also the period when Noonan began to grow concerned about where the country was heading economically.

"I suppose it was about '85, '86 that I began to have serious doubts about the policies being pursued by the Government and the stuff that was coming from the opposition in reply," he remembers.

"Then I did a year in Industry and Commerce and that gave me a good insight because I spent about a third of that in America. The IDA wanted you out there all the time. I was in every state beating the drum. I began to compare and contrast and I knew we were in trouble."

His enthusiasm for the US is evident from the passion in his voice as he talks about those years. "You'd go on from Kennedy and get out in the middle of Manhattan and you'd nearly lift off the ground with the buzz that was around and the sense of excitement. Nothing was impossible. And the sense of the market. It was then I began to understand how the market worked. It was dynamic. There was a sense of vitality that communicated to you. And then you got off in Dublin Airport..." his voice trails off.

"That year was very significant in forming my economic views. In what works and doesn't work. In what motivates people."

So what does motivate people?

"The reward system. The quality of their life. In America people will stand on their hands for you for two dollars.

"Do you rememberer Ireland at the time?" he asks. "The phrase that used really annoy me then was you'd ask somebody about something and they'd reply; 'Sure it will all right'. There was no pride in doing something right."

As Fine Gael finance spokesman under Alan Dukes, Noonan was one of those tasked with backing the Fianna Fail government and Ray MacSharry's reforms in what became known as the Tallaght Strategy. "I spent two years in the Dail trying to make sure that he wasn't defeated," Noonan says.

Today, Noonan is still clearly a fan of FitzGerald.

"Garret changed the mentality of a generation. And the same on the economy. That would be my formative issue. Where I became quite liberal on the social issues and what I suppose is centre right [on economics] with a great respect for the market," he recalls. "The test of all this is not the halls of the university. The test is the pub. A bunch of lads drinking pints after a match and you mention Garret and they say 'Jesus, he was a great Taoiseach'."

Pressed on how the financial crisis affected his family, Noonan finds it hard to come up with an anwser. "The kids were finished in college expect for my youngest one." He reckons his daughters would have emigrated anyway. He has two daughters living overseas, including one in France.

Noonan has another reason for not being too affected by the crisis; he spent most of those years nursing his wife Florence, who suffered from Alzheimer's.

"I spent from 2003 to 2010 on the margins of politics," he remembers. "In the second half of that decade I was the nearest thing you could be to a full-time carer."

Today, he says this period did not change his views on health, although he concedes it could have had an effect at a subconscious level.

He says it did not affect his political views. "There's an awful lot of stuff that goes on in your head which isn't consciously going on."

People came looking for advice.

"After the Late Late, I got a lot of that."

Would the young Michael Noonan understand the 71-year-old Noonan?

"Yes, there is a consistent line. I suppose the consistent line is a strong belief in sound money and proper financial foundations. And then the belief that it goes beyond that and that the sound money has to be used for the betterment of people's lives and the best way to do [that] so they are reasonably well paid. And then you need social services as well, to support that. And you need a safety net for the casualties. And that would have been my position right through, since I was elected to Limerick County Council at the age of 30."

'By this stage, I could write the catechism of budgets'



If I weren't doing what I do now... "I'd be teaching. Well, I'd be a retired teacher, I suppose - like my friends, I'd be going around Europe on Ryanair flights."

The last meal I really enjoyed... "was in Matt the Threshers [on Pembroke Street in Dublin 2], where I had some lovely fish."

My greatest indulgence is... "probably reading, I suppose."

The best present I have given recently... "was money and it was greatly appreciated. I won't say to who."

The books on my bedside table are ... "a book on strategy that my son gave me at Christmas, which is heavy going. There's a new Le Carre, which I believe was written by committee. I'm reading a biography of [novelist] Francis Stuart, who married Maud Gonne's daughter."

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