Tuesday 23 July 2019

Old wounds reopen with scrappy 70-somethings

OLD WOUNDS: Noonan and Dukes in 2002. Today both men are over 70 years of age, embarking on a new battle to defend their reputations
OLD WOUNDS: Noonan and Dukes in 2002. Today both men are over 70 years of age, embarking on a new battle to defend their reputations

Shane Ross

Has Michael Noonan lost his touch? The sure-footed Minister for Finance has become accident-prone in recent weeks. Instead of floating above the media scrum, Noonan has descended to political jousting. Not all of it has seen the avuncular Michael emerging in glory.

Since he took over at Finance, Noonan has left most media spats to his junior minister. He has reserved himself for the big occasions.

He has carefully created the impression that the shaky ship of state was in reliable hands. Budgets, domestic crises, European summits, pictures with world leaders - that was Michael's forte.

He soaked up the applause from foreign fans about his steady steerage of the Irish economy. Initially he left most of the domestic street-fighting to his junior, Brian Hayes, before the out-of-favour Fine Gael TD headed for Europe. More recently, he has relied on FG prodigy Simon Harris to do the arm-to-arm combat.

Harris has performed well. The combination of financial statesman and young Turk has worked brilliantly for the senior minister.

Suddenly, in recent weeks the formula has changed. Noonan has become embroiled in the scraps.

The Siteserv row has flushed the old master out into the open. Totally out of character, he has used language and imagery that has dented his self- portrayal as the lofty, unflappable guardian of the Irish economy. He has stooped down into his juniors' league.

Noonan bears political scars stretching over 30 years. Recently the wounds have been re-opening.

The Anglo Irish Bank/IBRC saga has been a mixed bed of roses for Noonan. He inherited the Anglo disaster from Fianna Fail. He pulled off the promissory note deal. His decision to set up a review - not just into Siteserv, but into all sales of over €10m by IBRC - provoked anger from former Anglo managing director Mike Aynsley. Noonan's accompanying public statement led to apoplexy from former Anglo chairman, Alan Dukes.

For some reason Noonan referred to the review's aims as being first to "establish if there are any malpractices or any criminal offences, and secondly, would what happened in these transactions be considered to be sound business practice."

It was a surprise that Noonan used such inflammatory language. Understandably Dukes blew a fuse. The Minister for Finance was entertaining the possibility that there had been "criminal" activity happening on Dukes' watch.

Anyone who knows Alan Dukes could be absolutely certain that neither malpractice nor criminal activity are in his armoury. He has his faults. He can be pedantic to the point of tedium - but impropriety is not one of them.

Dukes called a press conference. He reserved his legal position, but expanded on the IBRC deals. Some of them could have been better - but "criminal" they were not.

After the press conference there was no doubt of one thing. Former Minister for Finance Alan Dukes and current Minister for Finance Michael Noonan are not best buddies.

Dukes and Noonan go back a long, long way. Both were elected to the Dail in 1981. Both were in Garret FitzGerald's early Fine Gael cabinets.

Dukes was always a few steps higher up the ladder than Noonan. He succeeded FitzGerald as opposition leader in 1987. He appointed Noonan as his Finance spokesman. After Fine Gael came a dismal third in the 1990 presidential elections, Dukes was toppled in one of the bloodiest coups ever seen in Irish politics. Noonan, a senior member of the Dukes shadow cabinet, had joined forces with his opponents.

John Bruton took over the leadership. Noonan had to wait 10 more years for the top job.

It was February 2001 before Noonan eventually took over. In 2002 Dukes lost his Dail seat when the Fine Gael party was nearly wiped off the map under Noonan. Noonan resigned, a busted flush.

Both men faded into relative obscurity - Dukes as a consultant, and Noonan as an ex-leader in exile on the backbenches. Neither was ever expected to resurface in such prominent positions - one a Minister for Finance, the other becoming a white knight, chairman of the biggest banking failure in Ireland's history.

Some 25 years after the bruising leadership putsch, 13 years after Noonan lost his head and Dukes lost his seat, the two golden boys of the Eighties are back at loggerheads.

Dukes was parachuted onto the board of Anglo in 2008 - a political appointee. No, not appointed by Fine Gael, but by the late Brian Lenihan. The former FG leader was suddenly resurrected as a Fianna Fail protege. Eyebrows were raised among Fine Gael loyalists. Such political generosity was far from the way we do things in Ireland - but Lenihan was a man of exceptional calibre.

Dukes shed his Fine Gael hat while at Anglo. He made enemies in his old party when he rubbished their bank rescue plans in 2009. He took to the job like a duck to water. The massive salary (€150,000) probably helped his enthusiasm for the task, but he was efficient and characteristically thorough. We now know that there were constant tensions between Dukes' board and Noonan's Department of Finance.

Suddenly, in February 2013 Minister for Finance Michael Noonan decided to put Anglo into liquidation. Out with Anglo went number one casualty Alan Dukes and his €150,000 job. Dukes did not believe Noonan was making the right decision, and he let his views become known.

For the second time, Michael Noonan was instrumental in removing Dukes from a big gig. Old wounds were re-opened.

Last week they were publicly visible again. Noonan took the duel to the Dail. In response to a Fianna Fail motion on the sell-offs at IBRC, he pointed the finger at Fianna Fail and Dukes. It was another intemperate moment when he challenged his Fianna Fail critics: "It was your board, your chair, you appointed them."

He was delivering a killer blow to Dukes, disowning him as an alien appointee and tarnishing the entire IBRC board with the toxic Fianna Fail brush.

In a sense Noonan's attack was ordinary tribal politics. Yet it was stunningly revealing. Confirmation that bank directorships are regarded by all parties as the spoils of war, baubles to be distributed by the regime in power. We knew it already, but it is rarely we hear it being spelled out in the Dail.

Acccording to Noonan last Wednesday, the Anglo board was a political party's - not the State's - puppet.

By implication, so are all other semi-State boards.

Noonan might do worse than to examine "his" own boards and "his" chairmen. "His" boards include the vastly overpaid AIB chairman and all the other overindulged AIB directors. He and "his" board have approved the re-election and monstrous remuneration of the AIB directors. Ten days ago he cast the State's votes in favour of the re-election of them all, despite AIB's shenanigans over the variable rate mortgages. It was not his finest moment.

Today both Noonan and Dukes are over 70 years of age, embarking on a new battle to defend their reputations.

A pattern of behaviour had emerged. A week earlier Noonan had given further ammunition to his detractors when he became prickly with RTE ace interviewer Sean O'Rourke, telling the broadcaster to "get off the stage" after O'Rourke had penetrated his defences in a recent interview.

On Thursday, he attracted further controversy when addressing the Chamber of Commerce in Kilkenny. Throwing a by-election bone to the Fine Gael faithful, Noonan gratuitously referred to some of Ireland's jobless as "allergic" to work. It was raw politics. His rhetoric has embarrassed his Labour Party colleagues, but prompted further approval from the conservative wing of Fine Gael.

It is difficult to know whether the real Michael Noonan is the streetfighter or the Statesman. Let us hope that the looming October Budget does not provide an opportunity for him to treat the State's finances in his recent cavalier fashion.

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