Sunday 17 November 2019

Daniel McConnell: Mystery man eyes date with history

Even those who claim to be close to Michael Noonan say they know little about him. Daniel McConnell examines the enigmatic veteran

STATESMAN: Michael Noonan at a North South Ministerial meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson
STATESMAN: Michael Noonan at a North South Ministerial meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson

Daniel McConnell

Just who is Michael Noonan? Given he has been a dominant personality in Irish politics for over 30 years, it may seem a silly question. Yet, even those who would claim to be close to him say they know very little about him.

"You would talk to him, but it's him always asking the questions. He never gives anything away about himself. He is desperate that way," said one of his colleagues.

Aged 70, he currently holds the most important ministry in government. Following years in the political wilderness, since the sad death of his wife in 2012 he has become a 24/7 politician, totally immersed in Leinster House life.

A former school teacher with five adult children, he lives in a modest semi-detached house off the Father Russell Road in Limerick, and often stays in the unpretentious Buswells Hotel when in Dublin, yet Noonan is more than capable of holding his own on the European stage.

He rarely gives one-on-one interviews to the media, nor does he feel the need to chase headlines. "I lack all personal ambitions at this stage. I am very happy to be a main player within Fine Gael again. It is no longer about the medals and honours any more, I'm not interested in that," he told me previously.

But with the country back in recession, still subject to the dogma of Troika-led austerity with zero economic growth, record unemployment, and amid speculation that the bailed-out banks will require a further €35bn, questions are being asked about Noonan's modus operandi and his strategy to recover this country's economic independence.

It's three years since Michael Noonan's political purgatory was ended. Following the abortive heave against leader Enda Kenny, Noonan was parachuted back on the Fine Gael front bench as Finance spokesman, at the age of 67.

That week, I travelled down to Limerick to interview him. "I would like to get the job [Minister for Finance], I have been the bridesmaid now a long time. I was opposition Finance spokesman against Bertie Ahern, Ray MacSharry and Charlie McCreevy," he told me.

Finally the bride, Noonan constantly polls as the most popular minister, despite breaking some key pre- election and post-election promises.

He failed to burn bondholders, having been blocked by the ECB. He waved the white flag in tackling excessive bankers' pay, and lest we forget, he has continued the punishing schedule of austerity begun by Brian Lenihan, which has amounted to €28.1bn taken out of the economy so far.

As minister, within his department, he has surrounded himself with a cadre of

young, bright people. "He is interested in young people, and he was certainly frustrated with some of the older officials in the department; he now has a young dynamic team around him," a source said.

Following the somewhat controversial departure of top official Kevin Cardiff from Finance, Noonan appointed fellow Limerick man John Moran as Cardiff's successor.

Also key to Noonan are his special adviser, Eoin Dorgan (who had been Brian Lenihan's press officer), and Paul Bolger, his current press spokesman. His long-term aide and now special adviser Mary Kenny, who has worked with Noonan for many years, is by far the closest confidante he has in politics.

Given the intense European dimension to the job, Noonan now sees Finance as more akin to the ministry for Foreign Affairs, and he has taken the re-establishing of Ireland's credibility very seriously.

He has little time for detail, preferring to concentrate on the big picture narrative.

But according to some, he is constantly trying new things, and loves when he can announce even the smallest bit of progress.

"A good day for Noonan is to announce some major new development, do five minutes on Six One with Bryan Dobson. He feels he is talking directly to the Irish people as they have their dinner. He'll do that and feel he has accomplished something and will head off for a pint happy with himself," said one minister, pointing out that Noonan feels no need to attach the same importance to media relations as many other politicians do.

Noonan has also worked hard on the key partnership with his Labour counterpart, Brendan Howlin.

He mistrusts Cabinet, given how much detail is continually leaked from it. In contrast, Noonan is very happy with the workings of the four-man Economic Management Council, on which he sits with Howlin, Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore. "He feels much of the serious work gets done there, and shit doesn't leak out," one source said.

As one of his inner circle said this weekend, he doesn't have much time for Labour Party "drama and histrionics".

Noonan's importance to Enda Kenny's Coalition cannot be overstated. "He is the glue that holds the Coalition together," said one junior minister.

Kenny defers to Noonan a lot now, and not just on the economy, but also on political strategy. "He is the supreme political tactician in Irish politics. He plays it like a chess game, and Enda draws on that."

But the new-found equilibrium between Kenny and Noonan is also helped by the fact that the Taoiseach knows his Finance Minister is not after his job, as has often been the case in other administrations, and therefore he is not constantly looking over his shoulder.

Behind the closed doors of the Fine Gael parliamentary meeting, Noonan is often the calm voice of reassurance. He would have felt the departure of Lucinda Creighton was stupid and avoidable and has often warned younger colleagues: "don't ever close the door on an opportunity".

Despite Noonan's private reservations about them, Labour sees him as a safe pair of hands, and unlike several other Fine Gael ministers such as Alan Shatter, James Reilly or Phil Hogan, there is no sense of unhappiness about his performance to date.

With his demanding schedule, once his day's work is done, Noonan likes to unwind with a few pints.

Regularly, during the working week in Dublin, he likes to unwind in pubs such as Smyth's of Haddington Road and Doheny and Nesbitts with young TDs and senators for whom he is a box-office attraction. Sure, didn't he even manage to get the glamorous IMF boss Christine Lagarde out for a pint when she was in town.

It was at Smyth's that an impromptu get-together for his 70th birthday was organised, which was attended by a small gathering of colleagues including ministers Frances Fitzgerald, James Reilly and Leo Varadkar.

Noonan is close to Fine Gael TD Aine Collins and Senator Catherine Noone, among others who are regularly seen in his company on such occasions along with some of his advisers.

Fine Gael "groupies" are also often seen competing for his attention – a situation he clearly relishes, say some observers.

"He likes to be in the middle of things, and to some he performs the role of mentor, offering advice and reassurance to frustrated TDs," said one.

On Friday nights, having left Dublin behind, he tends to settle into a few pints in South's bar in his native Limerick with his close friends and even political rivals like Willie O'Dea.

At the Fine Gael think-in in Mayo last September, Noonan held court at the bar past 2am in the company of Collins, Noone, Fidelma Healy Eames and others. Yet Noonan remains a mercurial figure with some of his closest colleagues questioning what drives him on.

"I have watched him for a long time but I don't really know what he stands for. Deep down he believes in nothing but himself. He is a staunch pragmatist," one of his colleagues said.

Despite rumours earlier this year that he was about to retire, those around him are adamant he shows no sign of slowing down, with some saying he will run for election again.

"I think he worries what would happen if he was to leave. It has given him a huge lease of life and he loves being in the middle of things," said one close colleague.

"Noonan sees this time as an opportunity to rewrite his last chapter of his career, and if he does get us out of this bailout, what a chapter he will have written," said a fellow minister.

Irish Independent

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