Saturday 25 November 2017

Michael Noonan skips jobs event after a week in hospital

Finance Minister Michael Noonan. Photo: Fennell Photography
Finance Minister Michael Noonan. Photo: Fennell Photography

Niall O'Connor and John Downing

Finance Minister Michael Noonan is refusing to say whether he will accept an invitation from the Dáil's spending watchdog to answer questions on his role in the events leading up to the controversial sale of Project Eagle.

Mr Noonan is "reviewing" an invitation from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which its chairman Seán Fleming yesterday said should be accepted.

Mr Noonan returned to work at the Department of Finance yesterday for the first time since being taken ill.

The Limerick politician spent most of last week in hospital after being diagnosed with cellulitus, which is a painful skin condition.

Fine Gael ministers have become increasingly concerned about Mr Noonan's health.

There were also questions raised yesterday after Mr Noonan failed to attend a major jobs announcement in Limerick, despite being scheduled to do so.

Minister of State Patrick O'Donovan was sent instead to the programme announcement, which backers believe has the potential to create 5,000 jobs.

Mr Noonan's spokesman said he cancelled his attendance at the event because Government business - in particular the budget - took priority.

He is due to attend the Budget Oversight Committee in Leinster House today.

But Mr Noonan is expected to come under further criticism over his refusal to say whether he will appear at the PAC as the fallout from the sale of NAMA's Northern Ireland loan book continues.

Both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are demanding to know whether Mr Noonan could have intervened prior to the sale of the €1.6bn Northern loan book, which will now be thhe subject of a statutory inquiry.

The C&AG report found that the State lost €220m as a result of the sale of the portfolio to US firm Cerberus.

PAC chairman Seán Fleming said he "expects" Mr Noonan to appear.

"Mr Noonan would be very capable of making a decision himself on appearing before our committee.

"He would also be more than capable of answering our questions," Mr Fleming told reporters at the start of Fianna Fáil's pre-Dáil meeting in Carlow.

A spokesman for Mr Noonan told the Irish Independent last night that a decision has yet to be made.

"Mr Noonan is reviewing the invitation and he will respond to the chairman of the PAC in due course," the spokesman added.

The Government is to hold a statutory inquiry following a highly critical report on the NAMA sale of Project Eagle in 2014.

So far the Government has said that it is not the Finance Minister's role to appear before the PAC.

Government ministers have said the protocol is that the secretary general of the Finance Department is the one who should attend the committee - while the Minister answers directly to the Dáil.

A Cabinet source warned that if Mr Noonan attends the PAC, it will lay down a "precedent" that may prove to be unhelpful in the future.

Children's Minister Zappone said it is important that any appearance at the PAC does not involve Mr Noonan being asked issues outside of the C&AG's report.

"I am also aware that, should he decide to go, in the context of that committee, there will be a focus on that report as distinct from moving into the policy arena which is presumably usually why ministers answer the questions in the Dáil as distinct from committees."

Irish Independent

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