Sunday 20 October 2019

At 72, how much longer will Noonan reign at Finance?

Enda Kenny is committed to stepping down at some point in 2018 - but what now for Michael Noonan

NOONAN: Running again
NOONAN: Running again

Daniel McConnell

Michael Noonan won't be Finance Minister forever. That's a given. In fact, Noonan would be the first to tell you that. But how long more will he reign in Merrion Street? That's the puzzler.

Let's face it, Michael is not in the first flush and he has had his health issues recently. But, more importantly, he has had a long and varied career and this is its pinnacle.

It's not as if he expects to take over from Enda Kenny when the Taoiseach steps down in the middle of 2018. Noonan had his shot when he became leader of Fine Gael and it didn't work out.

The position he is in now is a good one, from his point of view. Though he is not as unassailable as he once was, he probably gets more credit for whatever improvement there has been in the economy than any other Government member. He is, of course, only joint Finance Minister - Brendan Howlin looks after the spending.

But the public doesn't think of them that way, which is probably unfair to Howlin. They see Noonan as the top man and Howlin in the back office somewhere, doing paperwork. Of course, Noonan also has one other string to his bow, one that is essential to all of us for that sense of well-being - he is needed. The Fine Gael party needs him, his Government colleagues need him and, most of all, the Taoiseach needs him.

All of this probably contributes to the general air of calm that usually surrounds the Finance Minister and allows him to be trotted out when all others have failed as the elder lemon to soothe the savage beasts with a few homespun analogies. Yes, that calm usually surrounds Noonan, but not always.

And while he has been sure-footed in his handling of his brief, he has had his banana skins too.

In the past year, he has become embroiled in controversies to do with Nama, Siteserv and, of course, the embarrassment of having Eurostat reject his "off-balance sheet" model for Irish Water.

And last week he was under fire again from Labour TDs and his Cabinet colleague, Environment Minister Alan Kelly, because of his "over-ruling" of the Labour deputy leader's call to link the payment of the €100 water conservation grant to bill payment. At the height of the political controversy in April, the Taoiseach - in a strange example of role reversal - was forced to defend Noonan's handling of the inquiry into the sale of Siteserv in 2012.

During the crisis, an angry Noonan made an appearance on Sean O'Rourke's show on RTE Radio, in which he accused RTE of failing to disclose the two reports on its future which were commissioned in 2013 by the Department of Communications and completed last year.

O'Rourke had suggested that the minister had been less than forthcoming in the answers he had given to Deputy Catherine Murphy on the issue. Noonan replied: "Ah now, you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel with that one when you are talking like that. Get off the stage.

"RTE isn't great at disclosure. You're sitting on reports for 12 months which you haven't published yet about the future of RTE."

It turned out the reports, which were not RTE's to release, had been published by Communications Minister Alex White a week earlier.

Noonan has more recently come under fire from opposition TDs, including Mick Wallace, when he rebuffed a request from Stormont to compel Nama to attend a committee hearing into corruption allegations surrounding the purchase of the agency's Northern Ireland portfolio.

The Finance Minister's health has also made the news of late. He underwent radiotherapy last year, followed by surgery, to remove a lump on his right arm. Then in February, he underwent surgery for exophthalmos (bulging) of the eye. It left him with a very noticeable black and drooping eye when he attended the meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels.

But that won't stop him. He has confirmed in the last few days that he fully intends to contest his seat in the next election. But, given his age - he is 72 - you have to wonder if he was re-elected, and if this Government was re-elected, what are the chances he would be asked to, or would want to, resume the Finance portfolio?

Of course, if Enda Kenny loses the General Election, then he will go and the chances are that Noonan would leave the front bench too. But if the party is back in government, you would have to believe Kenny would want to hold on to the comfortable presence of his Finance Minister. And given how attached they both are to claiming credit for the recovery, you could see how they would like to stay in office long enough to be able to say they had completed, or largely completed, the job.

On the other hand, given that Kenny has indicated he will step down before the following election, and this has been widely interpreted as a commitment to go in 2018, wouldn't it make sense to give someone else a run in Finance before his exit? After all - Enda excepted - it is taken as a bit of a given, that if you want to be Taoiseach, you probably should do your stint in Finance.

But if Enda were to think like that, to whom would he give the nod? Because there is no doubt that if he appoints a successor to Noonan before he departs, that would be seen as Enda anointing a successor. Some say this would be Simon Coveney, but Frances Fitzgerld gets a mention too. For some reason, not too many think that Enda would pick the person who leads the betting - Leo Varadkar.

But would it matter? There is no guarantee that the rest of the parliamentary party would feel obliged to follow Enda's lead on who will be the next party leader - and possibly the next Taoiseach.

The key to all these tantalising questions lies with one man - Michael Noonan.

Sunday Independent

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