Thursday 14 November 2019

Lazarus-like return makes Noonan odds-on for Finance job

Alison O'Connor

Politics is a funny business. Anyone observing the career of Michael Noonan post his disastrous stints as Minister for Health and leader of Fine Gael would have bet money on him never finding himself in good odour with the public again.

But Noonan was the hero of General Election 2011. He was the king of the soundbite and the must-see clip on the six o'clock news to hear his latest take on the IMF bailout. It's been a Lazarus-like comeback.

Now he seems to be the natural choice for our next Minister for Finance -- the most important job in the Cabinet for the next five years. It was a campaign that lacked any defining moment, but one that came sort of close was his utter derision of Labour's negative ad on the dangers to the middle classes of Fine Gael putting €1 on to a bottle of wine.

But will it be long before the opposition parties start mentioning the name Brigid McCole to him across the Dail chamber when he is taking questions as a Cabinet member? It will be too easy a chant for those attempting to portray a minister with a serious deficit problem as a heartless sod.

When he became Fine Gael leader in 2001 Noonan's tenure was constantly overshadowed by his handling of the hepatitis C controversy, particularly the case of Mrs McCole. Following advice from then Attorney General Dermot Gleeson, Noonan, then health minister, took a highly legalistic approach, and, most believed, a rather heartless one.

He was hugely damaged when it was revealed the State had threatened the dying woman in a letter not to pursue the case.

Subsequently RTE screened a drama on the controversy and there was no doubting who was the baddie of the piece. It was shown very close to the 2002 general election and at the time there were serious questions about RTE's timing. It seemed wrong even then, and in hindsight the timing chosen by the broadcaster was quite extraordinary.

Remembering Noonan's public persona at the time, in sharp contrast to today, he seemed unable to strike the right note on anything. There were countless questions on his judgment of issues and those interacting with him said he was prone to paranoia (even more than usual) and the atmosphere in Fine Gael under his leadership was not good.

His getting hit by a custard pie in the face in that election campaign just seemed to sum it all up. The result was disastrous with the party going from 54 to 31 seats.

Noonan had fallen such a long way from being one of our political big beasts and those days when he was brilliantly parodied on 'Scrap Saturday' as Limerick DJ Mornin' Noonan Night.

After that bruising time, Noonan effectively withdrew from the political limelight (he had a poor relationship with Enda Kenny).

As we also now know he was dealing with his wife Flor being diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease at just 54 years old, a fact very few people were aware of at the time.

Last year, he gave an extremely moving and brave interview about it on RTE's 'Frontline' programme where he spoke about the difficulties and loneliness of being a carer and coping with the devastation wrought by the disease. His wife is now cared for in a nursing home.

The political tide has now turned again for Michael Noonan.

He is almost -- but not quite -- the nation's political sweetheart, seeming entirely in tune with the public. His being appointed Fine Gael's finance spokesman was another positive consequence of the attempted coup against Enda Kenny last summer. Without doubt he has brought an experienced political nose to the situation and steered the party cleverly in recent months.

He must have wondered himself in recent times at the vagaries of the public. In fact he mentioned it on 'Prime Time' one night during the campaign. He was speaking about how Enda Kenny was perceived by the voters, and joked that "Michael Noonan himself" wasn't so popular previously, but seemed to be doing alright now.

The Finance job, though, is going to be a fine line between keeping the public in touch with reality -- but not so much that you crush consumer sentiment.

What we don't want is a parallel economy going on with exports doing fine, while tumbleweed floats down Grafton Street and the country's other main shopping quarters.

Noonan has made no secret of the fact that he would like to be back in Cabinet. Finance appears the obvious choice, provided of course Labour doesn't win the battle to get it.

Joan Burton certainly has a claim on the job, although some of her party colleagues have their reservations on that front.

Ruairi Quinn has proven that he can do it well and Pat Rabbitte could be another interesting choice (although I've heard concerns from his own side that he might end up 'going native' in the department). But it would be quite an extraordinary move by Fine Gael if it was to relinquish this ministry at this time in the country's history.

Finance is always an important job but never more so than now. Michael Noonan may currently be the voter's darling but he knows only too well what the opposite feels like.

Part of Noonan's attraction is that he has the air of someone who has seen it all before and isn't really too surprised, or phased, by any of it.

If his popularity remains as strong the public won't have much appetite for any opposition barbs about blood contamination.

Irish Independent

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