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Now Ireland's good name is 'shot to bits' says Noonan

Minister maintains self-critical stance in the week after Enda's 'mad' rant

FINANCE Minister Michael Noonan has claimed civil servants had to represent Ireland at major European Council meetings because cabinet ministers from the previous government failed to turn up and the country's reputation was "shot to bits".

He encouraged young undergraduates to continue with their third-level education for as long as possible -- even after they graduate.

"You are lucky to be in college at present because you are kind of sheltered from the storm -- the economic storm. If you are out working at the moment, you are out there in a tough environment. In college, you are sheltered and getting an opportunity to develop your skills as you develop your education. By the time you graduate, the economy will be lifting again and there will be job opportunities again.

"Stick at what you are doing (university). Stay as long as you can -- don't let them throw you out. When you graduate start thinking of further qualifications whether it is a masters or a diploma. There are skills shortages already emerging in our economy -- shortages of people in the computer and the agri-food industries," he said.

Speaking candidly to the University of Limerick (UL) Debating Union last Thursday night, Mr Noonan said the outgoing Fianna Fail administration left his government colleagues with an enormous job to restore Ireland's tattered reputation across Europe.

When they did attend meetings at Brussels, Mr Noonan said the previous ministers lectured their European counterparts on how to get rich -- by selling property to each other.

The Limerick TD was honoured by the UL Debating Union with honorary life membership for his dedication to his political work. The 50 or so students heard Mr Noonan's recollections of his 38 years in politics and his confidence for their future.

He said: "The Irish aren't great at general strikes and they are not great at street protests, but when it comes to the ballot box, they are pretty effective because Fianna Fail -- after being in power for 14 years -- dropped from 42 per cent to 15 per cent in one election. It was the biggest change in Irish politics since the foundation of the State."

After entering Government 10 months ago, he said his colleagues restored a calm society and have repaired the country's reputation abroad.

"We found when we went to Europe in the early days that our reputation was shot to bits as a country. Many of the Fianna Fail ministers hadn't attended council meetings in Brussels -- they were represented there by civil servants.

"In the height of the Celtic Tiger, there was a tendency among the Irish ministers to attend and to lecture the Europeans on how to get rich. There was an easy way to do it -- sell property to each other. To tell you the truth, if I was to use vulgarisms I would be telling you precisely what they thought of the Irish. But you can take it that our reputation was extraordinarily low," Mr Noonan said.

"After stabilising the country, the second thing we did was restore our reputation abroad. A lot of it was by simply attending meetings and doing our job, but as well as that doing what the Irish are very good at -- young and old -- networking, making friends, getting involved in other people's problems as well as our own, making a contribution. We have been doing that building work now over 12 months and we are back again with very good connections across Europe. People are supporting Ireland going forward."

Mr Noonan said the country has a great future.

"I think we can get out of this phase. You apply yourself and you work your way out of it. If you wanted to describe the crisis in Ireland in one word -- debt. The solution is solve the sovereign debt problem, solve the banking debt problem and solve the personal debt problem and this country will start growing so fast it will be unbelievable," he said.

Sunday Independent