Sunday 19 August 2018

Noonan breaks silence on Brexit and Russia

Trinity College students were treated to a tour de force from the former Fine Gael minister, writes Philip Ryan

Politics can get in the way: Michael Noonan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Politics can get in the way: Michael Noonan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

In the hallowed grounds of the Graduates Memorial Building in Trinity College last Tuesday, former Minister for Finance Michael Noonan decided to break his eight month silence on commenting on matters of State.

The wise old owl of Fine Gael was invited to speak to students by the college's Historical Society at an event hosted by law firm Mason Hayes and Curran.

At the well-attended engagement, Noonan decided to settle a few old scores and double down on his record in government. He was in noticeably good health and frank in responses to the students who peppered him with questions about his time in charge of the State's finances.

As with all statesmen in the latter half of their careers, his political focus has become more worldly. One of the most interesting moments of his address was his stark warning on the rise of Russia and the country's "positively dangerous" president Vladimir Putin.

In his inimitable Limerick drawl, he said the EU cannot compete with Russia in terms of "military might".

"Their military is quite strong both on new weapons and traditional weapons," he said. He said Russia's military capabilities are powerful but noted that the country's economy was in decline, which will potentially make Putin more dangerous. He said Italy's gross domestic product (GDP) was greater than Russia's despite being only a fraction of the size in terms of landmass and population.

"Historically, you often see that countries in a decline are more dangerous than countries that are expanding, and there is no doubt that Russia is in decline," he said. He also urged caution over the growth of China and insisted the EU should become more integrated to deal with these threats.

Closer to home, Noonan dismissed "alarmist" commentary about the potential impact Brexit would have on the Irish food industry. The sector has already been impacted by the uncertainty over future trading agreements but Noonan insisted the EU and Britain would work towards the "best possible free trade deal" for both sides.

"I see a lot of alarmist ideas in the newspapers about how Irish agriculture will be decimated and the Irish food industry will be decimated but when you think about it I don't think that makes sense because the only people who can put tariffs on Irish food are the UK's authorities and I can't see any of the UK politicians wanting to make food dearer in the UK," he said.

Noonan said 30pc of all British food comes from Ireland, France, Netherlands and Denmark which makes it in everyone's best interest to design a free trade deal.

"Why would they (the UK) raise the price, especially if you're trying to get votes? And the British housewife is in the supermarket and she says that 'the chancellor of the exchequer is after driving the price of butter up half pound sterling'," he added.

One student asked Noonan to respond to criticism of his approach to the Greek bailout negotiations from the country's former minister for finance Yanis Varoufakis, a socialist firebrand who questioned Noonan's decision to reject the bailout proposal he brought to Brussels during his shorted-lived tenure as a minister.

Noonan was quick to note Varoufakis was in government for only five months and said during this time he was "driving Greece over a cliff" economically.

Noonan also made the bold claim that Greece would have been booted out of the Eurozone if it had not been for him speaking up at a key EU meeting.

"I think it's an open secret that hadn't I intervened on one particular Euro group meeting Greece would probably be turfed out of the Euro which I thought would be a disaster," he said.

He talked through the arrival of the Troika and the almost 300 measures the Labour and Fine Gael coalition government was forced to take to meet the terms of the bail.

He said the Government took a sector-by-sector approach to the rebuilding economy.

He said every sector, apart from construction, was now seeing growth and gave particular mention to the tourism and agriculture industry.

On tourism, he told how Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary convinced him to drop his travel tax by promising to bring more airline passengers into Ireland.

Noonan said he expected a "historical high level of employment" by the end of year but warned that economic growth was generally above average when a country is coming out of recessions.

He candidly admitted politics gets in the way of making astute economic decisions.

To reaffirm his point he quoted his old friend, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

"President Juncker said 'everyone knows what should be done to protect the economies of Europe, economies like Ireland, Spain and Greece, but the problem is to do it and get re-elected," Noonan said.

He gave the example of Australia as a country which has been not struck by boom and bust economic cycles.

"Australia has 26 years of continuous growth so the theory that there is a business cycle that only lasts five or six or seven years, and then you crash and you have to start again, that's not true if you manage it properly and the Australians across a variety of sectors managed," he said.

Sunday Independent

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