Wednesday 16 January 2019

A curious tale of two Noonans - and Hillary's smarter sister

Thoughts of an old drinking buddy have got me thinking about how prominent people develop split personalities

Michael Noonan
Michael Noonan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Watching Alan Shatter on Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge, I thought of my old drinking buddy Michael Noonan.

Did I ever tell you about my old drinking buddy Michael Noonan? It was the early 1990s, a time when admittedly I had quite a few drinking buddies in the bars of the Baggot Street district, and for a while Michael Noonan was one of them.

Now I wouldn't say we were great mates, we would never arrange to meet or anything of such an intimate nature, but there were nights when we'd find ourselves in the same drinking space, and frankly we would get along quite well.

He was not in power at the time, of course, and it sort-of goes without saying that neither was I. Indeed, I accepted that if the former Minister for Industry and Commerce had anything better to be doing during those fallow years, in all likelihood he would have been doing it with a different set of drinking buddies.

Yet he was good company in that relatively relaxed phase of his life, and I even recall him in conversation with the great music journalist Bill Graham, probably the brightest man I have ever met in my life, with Noonan just about able to hold his own, bearing in mind that it was late, and they'd been drinking.

For all we knew at that time, Noonan would never again ascend to the great heights he had known. And then, in one of those incredible twists which have defined the wholly unpredictable nature of Irish politics for almost 100 years, in 1994 a Fianna Fail-led government was replaced by - of all things - a Fine Gael-led government.

Michael Noonan was now the Minister for Health, and to the astonishment of many, not least his old drinking buddy, he handled the Hepatitis C scandal and in particular the tragic case of Bridget McCole with the most profound stupidity and insensitivity.

Essentially he took a legalistic rather than a humanistic line, he got it horribly wrong. And if you knew Michael Noonan like I knew Michael Noonan, you would have found it stranger still.

It seemed to involve more than just his capture by the mandarins, it was like he had been changed in ways beyond understanding, that the man who had been able to converse vaguely as an equal with Bill Graham, was now fundamentally transformed.

I believe that we don't rightly understand this human phenomenon, the effect that a position of eminence can have on a person. There's a multitude of stories, not just in politics, about people in power completely losing the plot, and we cover it in cliches about the twisted nature of the pursuit of success, and the burdens of high office.

But then we're looking at Alan Shatter on the Cutting Edge and as far as we can see, this is just a different person to the one who used to be Minister for Justice - this is the sort of person you might even go drinking with, along with the early 1990s version of Michael Noonan.

Joshing away around the TV table with Brendan O'Connor and Niamh Horan and Gloria Hunniford, this Alan Shatter is now writing books with titles like Life Is A Funny Business.

This Alan Shatter on Claire Byrne Live actually recited a poem he had written - a poem, for Christ's sake - about fake news.

But even in this light-hearted mood, you can see the occasional glimpse of his absolutely brilliant legal mind, so this really could not be the same Alan Shatter who, while he was Minister for Justice, made the juvenile error on Prime Time of revealing that Mick Wallace had been cautioned by gardai for using a mobile phone while driving.

Who was that guy?

Who is this Hillary Clinton, going around the world explaining how someone called Hillary Clinton lost the US election - someone who looks quite like her, and talks quite like her, but who is obviously someone else.

This Hillary Clinton we see today would have won that election. She knows all the things that the other Hillary Clinton should have done, she has a much better personality anyway, in fact it is utterly tragic that the wrong Hillary Clinton was standing against Trump.

In a superficial sense these two Hillarys seem similar. But underneath they must be so different, and not just in terms of their opinions or their attitudes. It seems to be an actual chemical or a biological change that comes over people when they go too far up in the world for their own good.

Nor are we immune to it, in this inky trade of ours.

To the civilian population, David Walsh, the chief sports writer of The Sunday Times, is mainly known as "the man who brought down Lance Armstrong", and recently as the one who was heard in a 2012 interview with Matt Cooper, calling Tom Humphries "a fine man" when it seemed very wrong to be reaching for that, or for any other compliment.

But to those who were still interested in Walsh's journalistic adventures after Lance, the last few years had already been somewhat troubling.

To the aficionados it seemed that the closer he got to the centre of power, in his travels with Team Sky, the less he saw of cycling's dark side.

The further "inside the ropes" he went - he played golf this year in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which has featured Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jamie Dornan and Sir Ian Botham - the more his empathy seemed to grow for the corporate line.

He was being lambasted for tolerating Team Sky's gibberish about "marginal gains" and the like, the sort of thing he had ripped asunder during his pursuit of Lance - and indeed of Michelle Smith.

Eventually one of his closest friends, Paul Kimmage, with whom he had soldiered so valiantly, felt obliged to declare that "celebrity has been the poison of many a man", that Walsh's judgment had been affected by it.

But it was that interview with Matt Cooper which seemed to go beyond mere errors of judgment - this idea that Walsh knew things that other people didn't know, as if he had access to some higher state of consciousness, suggested that he had risen to such eminence in his profession, he was now ruling by decree, as it were - a friend of mine felt he sounded not like a sportswriter but "a medieval cardinal".

The other David Walsh though, he was great.

Maybe he'll be on the Cutting Edge in a few years time, bewildered by it all.

Sunday Independent

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